My Experience of Port Harcourt. Harmful Health Effects of Soot and How to Stay Safe.

Photo by Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)

My Experience of Port Harcourt

My spouse’s job takes him from place to place and for the past few months he was residing in Port Harcourt. He did mention about the soot pollution in the city but one can’t really understand the severity of the situation until you see it personally. Port Harcourt is the capital of Rivers State, a state located in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It is nicknamed as the treasure base of the nation and the city was formerly known as the garden city.

I did visit, with my toddler. It’s a beautiful city but the soot pollution is like nothing I have ever seen. For once I was actually glad that society had normalized the use of facemasks. I didn’t put on my facemasks for fear of covid, but for fear of inhaling soot.

I cannot recall how often I washed my son’s hands in a day. Even with closed doors and windows, you couldn’t just pick up a plate or cup overnight from the kitchen and use it without rewashing.

It rains a lot in Port Harcourt. My toddler couldn’t play in the rain nor jump in poodles due to the acidity of the rain. Studies in 2008 revealed the phenomenon of acid rain in the Niger Delta area. Soot pollution in the region rose to visibly disturbing levels in the late 2015 and the problem keeps worsening.

What is Soot?

According to Oxford definitions, Soot is a deep black powdery or flaky substance consisting largely of amorphous carbon, produced by the incomplete burning of organic matter.

Soot also known as carbon black is the ordinary term for pollution which is caused by fine particulate matter which ranges from 2.5micronmeters in diameter or smaller (PM2.5)

Soot is formed from a lot of common practices such as cooking with stovetops, oil lamps, fireplaces, wildfires, waste incineration, coal burning, vehicle exhaust emissions and and oil bunkering.

Oil bunkering involves the theft and illegal diversion of oil, crude refinement and unauthorized loading of fuel containers and sale of the derived petroleum products. According to reports, Nigeria loses over 1billion dollars yearly to oil bunkering.

Port Harcourt and the rest of the Niger Delta area of Nigeria take the lead when it comes to fine particulate pollution. Soot has a particulate matter size of 2.5micron which is more dangerous than the particulate matter size of 10micron measured in other Nigerian cities. PM2.5 includes compounds, metals, while PM10 includes dust, pollen, mold.

Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images
Soot with a particulate matter of 2.5 micronmeters is invisible to the eye, when the levels are high, the air becomes opaque. This results in a haze, decreasing visibility. Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Soot is much smaller and is invisible to the naked eye and is easily and quickly inhaled. This mixture of metals and chemicals which are unable to be expelled by the respiratory cells and are lodged deep within the lungs, diffuse in to the blood to exert harmful effects on the body.

Soot also clings easily to areas much cooler than its source of release, your walls, your clothes, your dishes. etc. So without expert cleaning, one can never completely get rid of soot in such an environment as Port Harcourt.

Soot has harmful effects such as decrease in visibility which could affect land and air transport, the formation of acid rain which harms aquatic life and the vegetation among others. These adverse effects affect the environment, ecology and the general economy of the region.

The thrust of this write up is to highlight the harmful health effects of soot.

Harmful Health Effects of Soot

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease as the name suggests is a chronic inflammatory condition in which there is obstruction of airflow from the lungs. Persons diagnosed with this condition have lower chances of recovering while living in areas with high particulate matter pollution.

Asthma: The prevalence of soot could lead to increase incidence of asthma especially in children and youths. For patients already struggling with asthma this can lead to an increase in hospitalization rates and increase in the severity of attacks of these patients.

Eye and Skin Irritation: Particulate matter doesn’t just get into your lungs. It can also get into your eye causing irritation and redness of the eyes. Soot can also cling to clothes and direct contact with the skin results in dryness and increased cases of allergic dermatitis and eczema.

Heart attacks and strokes: Research has also shown an increase in cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart attacks in persons exposed to soot pollution.

Particle pollution causes Lung cancer. Metals including silicon, manganese, Iron, cobalt, and titanium in soot contribute to oxidative stress and damage to DNA which induces cancer. Soot can also increase the risk of other cancers such as that of the bladder, scrotum, skin and esophagus.

How to Stay Safe?

Below are a few suggestions for how we can protect lives from the harmful effects of soot pollution. Some are steps which can be taken by the individual and others require governmental action.

  1. Reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Invest in electric gadgets.

2. Use of facemasks and nasal filters while outside.

3. Keep doors and windows closed. This doesn’t really change the overall situation but trust me there’s still some difference.

4. Invest in plants. Have plants indoors, do some gardening outdoors and plant more trees within the environment. Plants such as peace Lily, Boston fern, wall flower etc. This article by the Oxford Garden Centre give details on how plants combat particulate pollution and what plants are best for this.

5. Invest in air purifiers. They are a bit pricey but if you don’t see yourself relocating soon and you live in an area of high pollution. Your lungs will thank you for these.

6. The Government must work towards the provision of stable electricity and more research can be done into alternative forms of energy such as solar, hydroelectric or nuclear.

7. Government restriction on illegal oil bunkering.

8. Regular and strict air quality monitoring by the National Environmental Standards Regulations and Enforcement Agency (NESREA).

9. Installation of smog towers. Smog towers are large scale air purifiers designed to reduce particulate matter pollution. The structure is as high as an 8 story building. Its installation has recorded successes in China and Poland.

10. There is increasing evidence that taking of antioxidants such as vitamins D and E can protect against the harmful effects of pollution on the Lungs.

11. Be Informed. Get informed about the effects of soot and help others to get informed by sharing this article.

12. Demand accountability from the elected leaders. Nigerians deserve better. The people of the Niger Delta deserve better. Public outcries have led to campaigns such as #stopthesoot. Join the movement.

And the last but not the least, is it too heartless of me to suggest relocation? I mean we as a family fortunately moved away. It might not be the best advice to those originally from the Niger Delta, as this is their place of origin. However, you live to fight another day, if you can relocate, please do!

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