By Cosmas Omegoh
Experts have continued to outline the grave danger that lies ahead as access to clean energy disappears.
Knowledgeable persons in health and environmental matters warn that a gradual return to the use of firewood, charcoal and kerosene hold enormous health and environmental implications.
The aforementioned three energy sources are said to be hazardous pollutants – the truth a sizable number of the citizenry is yet to be told let alone understand. Fumes from them can cause lung diseases, and lead to the death of children.
According to Dr Wilson Imogang, former Commissioner for Health in Edo State, “when it (pollutant) is inhaled as sooth, its accumulation damages the lung tissues and makes the lungs more susceptible to inflammation and infection.”
And for households that can no longer afford the use of gas because of its soaring price, Dr Imogang and Dr Gbenga Alo, medical director, Ibadan Anglican Hospital, Ibadan, advised that they must desist from cooking with their kerosene stoves, firewood or charcoal inside their homes.
This practice, they said, can cause particularly the children – and even adults – to come down with ailments hard to handle.
Days ago, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) revealed that nearly 185 children in the country below the age of five years die every day from pneumonia arising from air pollution.
UNICEF made this disclosure when it marked the World Pneumonia Day.
UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, revealed that in 2019 alone, 49,591 Nigerian children under five years sadly died of household-specific air pollution-related pneumonia.
He also said that in the same year 2021, 67,416 Nigerian children under the age of five died of overall air pollution-related pneumonia.
Hawkins noted that most of the children died after inhaling gases from firewood, and/or cooking stoves in their homes.
He lamented that “this is a travesty – for their families and for Nigeria – especially because the vast majority of these deaths are preventable.”
He revealed that Nigeria ranks second on the table after India on the highest number of overall air pollution-related deaths across the world.
To further buttress his position, UNICEF boss quoted Every Breath Counts Air Pollution and Pneumonia Scorecard 2021, as saying that “Air pollution contributed to 30 per cent (749,200) of all pneumonia deaths in 2019; 56 per cent (422,800) from households and 44 per cent (326,400) from outdoor sources.”
Unhappy with the situation in Nigeria, he advised that “it is critical that the government introduces policies to reduce the major causes of air pollution-related pneumonia deaths among Nigerians – especially children, who bear the biggest burden.”
According to him, “one of the important ways we can do this is to increase the proportion of Nigerian households with access to clean cooking fuels and technologies, by increasing the use of LPG gas for cooking and helping families finance the cost of clean stoves and fuels.
“We must also scale up services to diagnose and treat pneumonia, and improve nutrition, vaccine coverage, and breastfeeding rates – all of which improve children’s health and immune systems, reducing the risk of children dying from pneumonia if they do contract it.”
Clean energy: Nigeria engages reverse gear
But does UNICEF realise that a vast majority of the people can no longer afford domestic gas?
Across the country, the price of gas continues to hit unprecedented new heights; now, the price of 12kg cylinder of the commodity nears the N10,000 mark.
Against this backdrop, many families in the country have now resorted to using firewood and kerosene to cook their meals. They are the same old sources of cooking energy that have been adjudged dangerous to both the heath of the people and the environment.
Pollution and its dangers
For those not aware for what pollution means let alone understand how it affects them and their environment, Prof John Didacus Njoku, dean, School of Environmental Sciences, Federal University of Technology (FUTO) Owerri provides the answer.
“Pollution,” he says “is a situation where the ambient (environment) water or air is diluted above the acceptable limit for human health.
“Once that environment, mainly air is polluted to the extent that it is no longer good for human health, such environment is already dangerous.”
Prof Njoku, an expert in environmental studies, recalled that “household pollution can come from common things such as the use of insecticide, rotten items in the ridge like fruits among others. Some of the effects might not be dangerous.
“But materials made of chemicals in the home, for instance, insecticide – especially mosquito coil – can be much more lethal.”
He warned against sending children to dumpsites as scavengers, insisting that “putrefying materials can also pollute the air, and that too is deadly.”
He goes on to say that “in some areas, the major pollutants is gas flaring that sends sulphur into the air which activities eventually return to us as sooth. That happens in the Niger Delta cities. Such things are dangerous to human health.”
Pollutants in the homes
More specifically, Prof Njoku warned that “the use of firewood, charcoal and kerosene stoves inside the homes must be avoided. They are dangerous, emphatically yes!
“In most homes particularly in the rural area, firewood, charcoal, kerosene stoves, including the Abacha stoves are still in use.
“But people need to know this. Provided it sends out smoke, provided it sends out aches, it is dangerous to children.”
He is saddened that “if you classify people according to their income, the low income ones who try to manage this and manage that, the use of kerosene, especially kerosene that is mixed with other substances among them is very dangerous.
“The use of charcoal is as dangerous as poison to the children whose systems are not yet as developed. This might activate ailments in them and even in adults.”
How household carbon inhalation kills
Prof Njoku reveals that “in homes, once you light a stove and the light comes up, it does not matter whether the flame is orange or blue.
“The moment the light moves from blue to whatever colour, it sends out carbon monoxide and all other forms of oxides – sulphur oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide – all the oxides of this world which can cause various respiratory issues that might eventually lead to death. This happens particularly in poor homes.”
Pollutants once in the body, Dr Imogang says “affect the lungs. It goes on to compromise the integrity of the lung tissues – whether they are chemical pollutants or smoke or other things; they affect the lung’s tissues, damage and make them more susceptible to bacteria and viruses; so the individual comes down with issues which will further damage his lungs.”
Weighing in, Dr Alo provides more insight into how households particularly children are affected by the carbon they ignorantly inhale, warning that “any oxide that arises from combustion of fuel releases carbon monoxide which is dangerous.”
While explaining the process that follows, he says: “Ideally, we are supposed to breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. When we are in an enclosure where fuel is being burnt, the fumes which are being released contain carbon monoxide which is injurious to health. Now, instead of breathing in oxygen, the one involved breathes in carbon monoxide.
“In the lungs, there is this exchange of gases, leading to the system producing carbon dioxide which we release into space. But if we are in an enclosure where fuel is being burnt, instead of breathing in oxygen, we breathe in carbon monoxide. So, the blood in our system begins to lack oxygen, thus exposing us to grave danger.”
Danger of rising gas price
Prof Njoku’s response to the daily rise in the price of gas is that “we are driving into grave danger.”
According to him, “the scenario is like this: people are now going back to the bushes to cut firewood. This will further fuel climate change and variation. Secondly, there are some people in our society that earn N10,000 monthly. If they buy LPG at N9,500, what happens to their food need?
“Now that people are resorting to old ways of doing things – firewood, charcoal, firewood is no longer easy to come by. Even the storage of firewood is dangerous. Ants and weevils drive into them and later leave substances that are left floating in the air. The substances might later find their way into the home, some as dirt, which when breathed by the kids can cause irritation in their system.
“At the moment, people are going into the bushes to pilfer wood; this is on the increase.
“Firewood itself activates air pollution particularly in this dry season. Most of the pollutants mix up with the air, and you know that the air we breathe in is made up very many gases. So, it will go into the air as gas. The kerosene, petrol and other forms of energy we use in the homes have sulphur which goes into the atmosphere and later comes back to us as acid rain or sooth. This too is dangerous.”
For Dr Imogang, realistically, all over the world energy is expensive. This he put metaphorically. “It is even cheaper to put food in the pot than to put the same pot on the cooking fire.
“Energy is very, very expensive. Even while we were kids going to fetch firewood was difficult. Now, firewood is scare to come by. We have depleted the forests; kerosene is expensive, coal is expensive; some time in this country, there was sawdust that was polluting everywhere, causing a lot of irritation to people’s lungs.That is no more.
“Once the lung tissues are irritated, they become easier for bacteria in the air to find a place in them to thrive and cause disease condition.”
He feared for the children most of whom he lamented “their homes are poorly ventilated. They crowd together and are easy targets for infections.”
His overall verdict is that “it is better go for the cleaner energy source than to go for firewood that is expensive in the city.”
Dr Alo equally fears that “the continuous rise in the price of cooking gas is a big source of concern.
“Part of the consequences,” according to him “is that now, we will be having kids coming down with breathing difficulties if their parents resort to using other sources of fuel inside the home.
“What we have to do now is to enlighten households on the need to cook in well ventilated rooms. Otherwise their kids will be coming down with difficulty in breathing. And you know that we are still dealing with Covid-19. So this is going to present to us a lot of diagnostic problems and confusion.”
Now, the big problem is the growing fear that if low-income families resort to the use of dirty fuel in cooking their meals, the practice might further escalate the said household pneumonia which UNICEF insists is killing children in the country.
This pneumonia Dr Imogang says “is usually an infective disease –viral or bacterial which affects the lungs, causing some inflammation in its tissues.”
He maintains that children are particularly at risk, because “they have difficulty in breathing; the patient comes down with chest pain, cough and fever.
“It makes children, restlessness because of the difficulty they encounter in breathing. It also kills the very elderly ones.”
Dr Alo concurs, asserting that “pneumonia is a chest infection, which can affect any age group.
“It is caused by micro organisms in the chest” he notes, “characterised by cough, chest pain, and fever with occasional difficulty in breathing,” affirming that “it is one of the killer diseases of children of under 5.”
However, he disagreed with UNICEF’s position that pneumonia is the major cause of household-related pollution, preferring to say that the said deaths might have been caused by pneumonitis, insisting that “inhalational injury is different from pneumonia. Inhalational injury causes pneumonitis and not pneumonia.”
He admitted that he had seen children come down with inhalation-related issues, “but that is not common. It is not as common as pneumonia itself.”
He, however, agreed that “anything that causes an obstruction to the airwaves in the lungs can kill, because pneumonitis sparks off an inflammatory process in the lungs. That also kills.
“But I don’t agree with the use of the word pneumonia. Pneumonia is caused by micro organisms which can be viral or fungal.”
What poor families should do
“Families should take life as it comes.” That is the nugget handed down by Dr Imogang who admitted that as “necessity is the mother of invention, they must survive.”
He said “if they must use firewood they must look for an open space rather than in an enclosure so that they don’t pollute their room. and don’t use kerosene stoves or charcoal like you use gas in the rooms.”
To buttress his position, he said: “When you inhale black sooth, its accumulation will damage your lung tissues and make them more susceptible to inflammation and infection.”
Dr Alo shared similar sentiment recalling that “in those days, our grandmothers used to cook in ventilated sheds which were usually detached from the main house. Such should be the practice now. If anyone has to use kerosene stove or charcoal to cook their meals, let them please do the same.”