style[amp-boilerplate] ‘Strange black soot’ blankets Port-Harcourt

‘Strange black soot’ blankets Port-Harcourt

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The Nigerian city of Port Harcourt used to be

known as "The Garden City" because of its

soaring palm trees and green open spaces.

But since late last year, black soot has been

falling from the sky, scaring and angering

residents of the oil hub who claim nothing is

being done to protect their health.

"You hang your clothes and before you know

it, they become black. You step on your floor,

everywhere is black," Steven Obodekwe, a

Port Harcourt resident and environmentalist,

told AFP.

Traders cover their wares with umbrellas of

different shapes and sizes along the railway

line in Port Harcourt city, Rivers State, on

February 14, 2017. The Nigerian city of Port

Harcourt used to be known as "The Garden

City", since late last year, black soot has been

falling from the sky, scaring and angering

residents who claim nothing is being done to

protect their health. / AFP PHOTO

The soot appeared in November last year,

clouds became a hazy grey and more people

were seen wearing protective face masks,

said resident Tamuno Alobari.

"It (the soot) is mostly pronounced in the

morning hours, especially when you run your

hands across your car," he said.

Timi Isiayei said there's no escape from the

fine black dust.

"When I brush my teeth in the morning and

try to clear my throat, I normally notice a

dark phlegm and the same applies when I try

to clear my nostrils," he added.

Toxic smog is a phenomenon that has more

often been associated with populous

developing economies such as India and


The government in Rivers state, of which Port

Harcourt is the capital, in December urged

the public not to panic but last week set up a

taskforce to investigate the matter.

The federal environment ministry in the

national capital Abuja on Monday declared

the air pollution an "emergency situation"

and warned residents to shut doors and


– Mystery origins –

The hashtag #StopTheSoot has appeared on

Twitter, people are sharing photographs of

their hands and feet covered in the dust, and

protest marches are being organised.

Burning tyres for scrap copper and illegal oil

refineries have both been blamed for the


Oil revenue is central to Nigeria's economy,

accounting for some 70 per cent of

government earnings and 90 per cent of

foreign exchange.

But decades of exploration and spills has

polluted the farmlands and fish stocks in the

maze of creeks around Port Harcourt and

across the Niger Delta region.

Theft of crude oil from pipelines — or

"bunkering" as it is called locally — sees raw

fuel regularly diverted to illegal refineries

set up in the bush for conversion into petrol

and diesel.

"From investigations carried out so far, we

have noticed that it is as a result of years of

exploration activities especially from illegal

oil bunkering activities," said environment

regulation official Emeka Aniamaka.

But the environment ministry suggested

another cause after ordering the shutdown of

an asphalt-processing plant, saying it was

"belching out thick smoke from its


– Health problems –

In 2015 the World Bank said 94 per cent of

Nigerians were exposed to air pollution

levels that exceed World Health Organization


Air quality is worsened by the use of

generators to make up for the gaps in supply

from the national electricity grid, as well as

petrol containing high levels of sulphur.

Toxic smoke also comes from the burning of

rubbish — a legacy of the absence of

municipal waste services.

The city of Onitsha, nearly 200 kilometres

(125 miles) north of Port Harcourt, was in

May last year named as having the world's

worst levels of PM10 particles.

PM10 are microscopic particles in the air

measuring between 2.5 and 10 thousands of

a millimetre or micrometres. They can come

from smoke, dust, soot, vehicle exhausts and


Doctors in Port Harcourt say they are seeing

the health effects of the soot already, with an

increase in consultations for breathing

difficulties, including asthma.

Children and the elderly are most at risk. The

United Nations Environment Programme

(UNEP) estimates some 600,000 people die

in Africa every year as a result of air


Environmentalists are also sounding the

alarm, as the soot has been found to contain

sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which

cause acid rain when combined with


Yet Obodekwe, who works at the non-profit

Centre for Environment, Human Rights and

Development, says it is unlikely any new

regulations will be implemented.

"Many environmental policies are not

enforced. There is a lack of political will," he


"It's not too important as far as they (the

government) are concerned. They don't

understand the implications of the attack on

the environment, so they don't take it


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