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Nigeria’s silent killer: Self-imposed exile

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Nigeria’s silent killer: The deadly price of oil

By Kelechukwu Iruoma, Ruth Olurounbi
Posted on Thursday, 30 April 2020 20:36, updated on Tuesday, 23 June 2020 10:10

In this second report, we see the long-lasting environmental, social and health problems the people of Ogoniland continue to deal with since a major oil spill in 2008.

This is part 2 of a series.

Petroleum hydrocarbons can enter the body through the air, food, and water or when one accidentally eats or touches soil or sediment that is contaminated with oil. Crude oil contains a significant amount of aromatic compounds including Benzene, Ethylbenzene, Toluene, and Xylenes (BTEX).

These are the most dangerous gaseous elements of crude oil and pose a risk of acute or chronic toxicity in humans during its production, distribution and use.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report on the impact of the oil spill on the communities in Ogoniland after the federal government hired its services to assess the extent of its damage.

Any young man who wants to stay here will definitely not see tomorrow.

The report revealed an appalling level of pollution, including the contamination of agricultural land and fisheries, drinking water, and the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to serious health risks.

It revealed that drinking water from wells in communities in Ogoniland was contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline.

The harmful chemicals released from oil spills can cause cancer, or kidney and liver damage.

Many spills also provoke fires, further releasing toxic fumes into the air causing respiratory problems.

Blood Tests

Each year, hundreds of post-impact assessment studies are conducted to assess the effects generated by the oil industry on the social environment and human health due to oil spills.

A recent test including a full blood Count (FBC), electrotype urea and creatinine (e/u/cr) and Liver Function Test (LFT) were conducted on 50 blood samples drawn from 26 males and 24 females, including youths and adults from Ogoniland.

Blood test done on a local resident (© Ile-mona Umoru)

Results showed no changes with electrolytes or with the kidneys. However, there were issues with the level of liver enzymes.

Out of the 50 people sampled, 38 representing 76% of the population were found to have elevated as Aspartate aminotransferase (AST) level and 18 people representing 36% of the population had an elevated Alanine transaminase (ALT) level.

Those are figures compared to the reference range stated by the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2008.

“Such elevated liver enzymes may indicate damage to the liver cells and such patients might be prone to liver disease,” explains Dr. Festus Davies of the Sapphire Health Group.

Before oil was discovered in the Bodo community, the people were living a peaceful life and the economy was booming.

A study published in the Journal of Hepatology by Dr. Kezhong Zhang of the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics concluded that exposure to such airborne particulate matter in fine ranges can have a direct adverse effect on the liver, causing hepatic fibrosis; an illness associated with metabolic disease and liver cancer.

Elevated AST and ALT levels were also linked to toxic substances emitted from oil spills as concluded by Kesava Reddy and Mark D’Andrea of the University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers, Houston, Texas.

“That is the effect of the environment,” says Dooh, after learning about his elevated AST level.

“Any young man who wants to stay here will definitely not see tomorrow.”

Land before oil

Before oil was discovered in the Bodo community, Emma Pii, chairman of the council of village heads, says the people were living a peaceful life and the economy was booming.

But with the discovery of oil, he says they began living in bondage.

“Instead of oil to be a blessing, it became a curse to us,” says Pii. “What Shell has done is to take our oil and make money from it while the people who own the oil are suffering.”

Dooh still remembers how his parents suffered and died from diseases caused by the oil spill.

He now lives with his family in a small bungalow house his father built in Bodo since UNEP advised them to leave to protect themselves. He has been living there ever since but still visits Goi.

Self-imposed migration

Houses in Goi have been deserted as residents seek safety elsewhere.

While many migrated to Port Harcourt, others moved to neighbouring communities.

“We are migrating,” explains Pii.

“We are refugees because when the means of livelihood of the people have been destroyed and you do not have what to sustain you, you have to migrate to where you can do something to survive.”

89-year-old Tudor Tomii is from Goi but now lives in Bodo after the oil spills ravaged his community.

“Here I am living in diaspora because of oil pollution. We can’t eat anything we plant there. We order anything we eat from Port Harcourt. We buy water from outside Ogoniland. Normally we drink from streams. Since the stream is polluted, we don’t have anywhere to drink from.

For part 1, click here.

For part 3, click here.

*This investigation was supported by Microsoft Modern Journalism and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)

Also in this in Depth:

Silent killer: The deadly price of oil

Right in the middle of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta is the one of the most profitable oilfields in history –only now it is one of the most contaminated stretches of water and marsh land in the world.

Nigeria’s silent killer: Welcome to Ogoniland

In this first report, we travel to Goi, a community in Ogoniland, a region in Nigeria’s Niger Delta that was hit by oil spills in September 2008. These were not contained until November of that year.

Nigeria’s silent killer: Compensation to the communities

In this third and final report, we see how the oil spill clean-up in Ogoniland is still not complete, despite recommendations by the UN and money distributed to the Nigerian government.

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