The year was 1952; seven years after the end of the Second World War and Britain, laden with war debts and comatose industries was struggling to shake off her post war woes and get her economy back on track. The journey was long, tedious and fraught with many moral and sociological issues; many of which came with very difficult answers but at no ppoint was it as iconic as the Great London Smog.
The smog remains a part of British history as one of the biggest environmental tragedies to have occurred in the country as a death toll of somewhere between 4000 and 14,000 people lost their lives between the cold and wintry Christmas of December 1952 and April in the year that followed. That event was crucial to the future of environmental policy-making and protection in Britain as after a long and tedious four-year battle within the British Parliament where the value human lives were shamelessly but understandably weighed against cheap economic progress, the first Clean Air Act of 1956 was promulgated. This set Britain on journey of environmental introspection that would happen to involve this writer leaving the shores of Nigeria for Britain to acquire a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management. Six months after he would return however, he sees a similar situation as Britain in 1952, being played out in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. The year now is 2017.
Rivers State is one of the biggest reasons why Nigeria is known globally as an African oil-producing giant. With over 5 billion barrels of crude oil buried beneath her surface, it is hard to argue with this supposition.
However, the reality of economic success that is popularly associated with the possession of substantial crude oil reserves like in California or Saudi Arabia is one that has continuously eluded the region to this day. In fact, it tells more of a disheartening tale of environmental negligence, corruption and an abuse of human rights. Indigenous residents here are known to live in abject poverty in places devoid of even the most basic social amenities and infrastructure but rich however, in this seemingly cursed crude oil and hollow lives crippled half way between the politics of redemption’s unending promises and an incessant legion of litigation. Read more about The Ogini Clean Up
The surface and groundwater in many areas here may have been rendered unusable due to years of crude oil spills and its percolation. Many areas of rural land may have been contaminated so badly that a historically riverine people who have lived for hundreds of years as farmers and fishermen can grow very little crops and find even fewer fish, but the issue on the figurative ground today is an appalling increase in levels of literal air pollution.
Polluted air is very often a difficult case to deal with because many of the gases that pollute the ambient air are invisible. Occasionally, cases of polluted air are reported as unpleasant odours and sometimes, unusual fogs or smog when it is possible to identify point sources of possible particulate emission. Particulates in these cases are extremely tiny solid substances or liquid droplets that have low enough masses that they may be carried by and suspended in atmospheric air and it is under this category that “soot deposition” falls. In scientific terms, there are two classes of particulates PM2.5 and PM10 which, describe the sizes of particulates in terms of their physical diameter. Hence, P(articulate) M(atter) 2.5µm(micrometres) where a micrometre is one metre divided by one million – 0.000001m = 1µm or PM10 which follows the same dimensional description but to different proportions. PM2.5’s are the smaller particulates while PM10’s are larger. Examples of PM2.5 are NOx’s and SOx (combined oxides of nitrogen and sulphur) which, make up a good fraction of vehicular exhaust fumes especially in diesel engines and also industrial gaseous emissions while an examples of PM10 are asbestos dust, soot and regular dust which could be found in situations ranging from open air fires to industrial stack emissions. PM10s are commonly associated with respiratory disorders in humans like shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing and cardiac events in the short-term and more serios=us issues like teratogenesis (birthing deformed babies) on long-term exposure. The effects are even more pronounced on the elderly, the infirm and to little children. PM2.5 on the other hand, penetrates way past respiratory organs and at their worst, have been identified as carcinogens by agencies like the WHO and DEFRA (UK).
Other common factors than particulates that play roles in air pollution include VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds e.g. spirits and vapours like petrol fumes for instance), carbon monoxide, lead and ozone; together they are called “criteria air pollutants”. (Maybe a discussion for another day when I will tell you that being in Lagos or PH traffic without air conditioning is a health hazard).