My heart wrecks every time a read such heart touching stories which bother on how innocent Nigerian are hastened to early grave by occupational health and safety hazards forced into their ways outside their control.
I personally visited this estate and was shocked to see the level of hazardous emmission that this company generates yet, the company was allowed to seat right behind a high brow residential estate where it currently constitutes immense hazard to residents.
I am really short of words over things that can only happen in Nigeria and the insensitivity on the part of government and its agencies, i do not know how we got here but one thing i am confident of is we can get out of here if only we are true to our individual conscience. Hope seems to be the only answer, we shall live to see that day when Nigerians shall rise up in one voice with an oath to do and support only what is right, this will be the foundation of a new Nigerian nation, the Nigeria of our dream.
This story was published by Punch Newspapers, kindly read and leave a comment afterwards.
After spending four weeks in Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, Off Adeniyi Jones, Lagos, TOYOSI OGUNSEYE writes a three-part story on the havoc that gases from a steel company, Universal Steels Limited, are wrecking on the residents
In Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of Lagos, the rich also cry.
Leafy and low density, the estate is the last place anyone would expect to find a weapon of mass destruction. But residents insist that death and destruction are borne by the air they breathe.
On Sundays, the air over the estate is clear. But on weekdays, when the heavy machines of Universal Steels Limited work, dark smoke billow into the sky, and loud sneezes become commonplace.
When our correspondent visited the estate, the fumes from Universal Steels assailed the nostrils with a pungent, choking smell that easily drew tears to the eyes. Residents say inhaling the fumes has become a part of their life. They breathe it, drink it and sleep it. The gases, just like air, will go anywhere the wind blows, seeping even through permanently shut windows.
“I did not open my windows for 15 years,” says Mr. Edmond Norman, who lived in the estate for a decade and a half. “I know it sounds almost unbelievable. It was almost impossible to breathe when we were outside. Two years ago, I made the decision to leave because living was almost becoming impossible.”
Fumes of death
Residents are quick to link the growing incidence of terminal illnesses, sudden deaths, birth defects and other health problems to the fumes bellowing from the factory.
Mr. and Mrs. Mark David have lived in the estate since 2000. In February 2011, Mrs. David fell ill. She was admitted to the Lagoon Hospital, Ikeja and diagnosed, first, for food poisoning. Later, her doctor added ulcer. Her condition grew worse. She experienced bloating, belching, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and fatigue.
The Davids then decided to seek medical treatment in the United Kingdom. Alas, it was cancer. Mark was distraught. But it was only the beginning.
“The London clinic diagnosed cancer on November 14, 2011; three days after tests were conducted, my wife started treatment for cancer with a £30,000 surgical operation to remove the gallbladder and one third of her liver on November 25, 2011 at the Hammersmith Hospital in London,” he says.
She returned to Nigeria for three weeks in December 2011. In January 2012, she returned to the UK and went for a fresh round of tests. This time, the diagnosis was grimmer.
He says, “Surprisingly, after those three weeks in the estate, another cancer which had not been there in November had emerged on her lymph nodes and pancreas, perhaps, as a result of the fumes in the estate.
“Chemotherapy, which cost £80,000, started in March 2012 and ended on August 15, 2012. She is still having treatment and has to have monthly blood tests using a trial drug which will, hopefully, extend (her life).”
Living a few houses away from the Marks is Mr. Mohammed Yusuf who has lived in the estate for 12 years. Yusuf, who is allergic to metals, says he takes medicine to protect himself from the fumes.
He says, “There was a time I would not be able to breathe properly once I got home (from the office). My driver would rush me to the doctor and I would feel better after taking some injections. But anytime I travel outside the country or leave my house, I am hale and hearty.
“I can’t take this pollution anymore. I am on steroids injection every four months to survive the metal fumes. I am allergic to metals and I am not getting younger. My doctor has told me that I cannot continue taking the steroids. So, I am leaving this place. It is my house, but I am leaving.”
Yusuf is lucky. Mrs. Tokunbo Sotayo, 46, a resident who died of asthma in October wasn’t. She moved, but a little too late.
“My sister was in good health before she started living in Adekunle Fajuyi. No one has asthma in our family; so, you can’t say it is hereditary,” Sotayo’s brother, Taiwo, says.
He adds, “She moved into this estate eight years ago and had her first asthma attack when she was almost 38. We were surprised when she developed it and it made us curious about what might have triggered it.
“Even when she left here, she never recovered from the asthma. She had a bad attack in October and died before she got to the hospital.”
Taiwo suspects that the fumes from Universal Steel caused his sister’s death. He says, “It was when we started to hear that other people in the estate were developing asthma as a result of the fumes that we suspected that the gases from the factory might have been responsible.”
Mark also lays the blame of his wife’s illness on the company. He claims that the metal gases from the steel factory caused his wife’s cancer.
He says, “The doctor said gall bladder cancer is rare in Nigeria and rare in many places. Obviously, we have suffered directly as a result of the lack of environmental management of the steel company’s fumes. Different experts we have spoken to told us that exposure to fumes from a steel company triggers this type of cancer. There was a particular household in the estate where three family members developed cancer. They have relocated abroad now.”
Are these residents merely crying wolf where none exists, or is there an established link between the diseases common in Adekunle Fajuyi Estate and the gases emitted by Universal Steels?
Prof. Albert Ebuehi of the Department of Biochemistry, University of Lagos, who is an expert in the effects of poisonous gases on human health, tells SUNDAY PUNCH that no one should live close to a steel company, especially one that releases its gases carelessly.
He says, “Some of the metals released by steel companies include iron, cadmium, chromium, lead, and zinc, among others. All of them in excess quantities can trigger all types of cancers. Cadmium in particular has been strongly linked to gall bladder cancer.
“Iron toxicity damages the heart, liver and elsewhere, which can cause significant adverse effects, including coma, metabolic acidosis, shock, liver failure, coagulopathy, respiratory distress syndrome, long-term organ damage and even death.”
The professor adds that the inhalation of cadmium-laden fumes can result in metal fume fever, chemical pneumonitis, pulmonary oedema and death.
He says, “High-level exposure to lead can reduce fertility in males. It damages nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders.
“Chronic toxicity of zinc may produce gastric ulcer, pancreatitis, anaemia, nausea, vomiting and pulmonary fibrosis. Chromium salts are also the cause of allergic reactions in some people. Contact with products containing chromates can lead to dermatitis, resulting in the ulceration of the skin sometimes referred to as ‘chrome ulcers.’”
A consultant surgeon based in Lagos, Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie, agrees with Ebuehi. He says apart from cancer, lead, which is a heavy isotope, cannot be detoxified by the body.
“Lead causes progressive organ damage and this level of organ injury progresses more in the kidneys than other organs, such that progressive renal damage occurs eventually, leading to renal failure. Cadmium has been implicated in both cancer of the urinary bladder and stomach.
“Chromium is one of the most innocuous metal poisons known to man. It causes skin rashes, dermatitis, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, pyrexia of unknown origin and even convulsions. Zinc, at toxic levels, can cause muscle cramps, headaches, blurring of the vision, severe and often unexplained weakness and even convulsions.
“Iron, in excess amounts, accumulates in the liver, which is the organ for detoxification and interferes with its cellular functions so adversely that the liver begins to shrink in a process known as liver cirrhosis.”
Like most of Lagos low-density premium neighbourhoods, Adekunle Fajuyi Estate is dotted by flowers and trees. On the morning of July 24, 2012, residents woke up to see their trees sickly and their flowers dead.
“I don’t know what type of gas the steel company emitted that day, but it was one of the worst we have ever experienced. Everyone was coughing; water was coming out of our eyes as if we rubbed pepper in them. I looked out of my window and my flowers were lying lifeless. I did not believe what I was seeing.
“You can imagine the toxicity of whatever it was that the company emitted that morning. If plants could die suddenly, that should tell you what we have inhaled into our bodies,” says Mrs. Patience Okon, who has lived in the estate for 12 years.
A giant almond tree is located at the entrance of the Okons’ residence but no one eats the fruits from the tree.
She adds, “The tree is just there as a shade. We can’t eat the fruit because our soil and underground water are contaminated. Only God knows how much toxic chemical is in our soil. Almost everyone here has fruit trees in their compounds, but we don’t touch them. They will be poisonous. The same goes for our underground water.
“We have complained to the company so many times and written several letters to the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, but nothing has come out of our complaints. The company told us that we met them here and that our area was designed to be an industrial estate.”
Okon, who is Mrs. Mark’s friend, decries the fate that has befallen her friend. “Just look at her. There was a time oil spilled from the factory into Marks’ compound and poisoned all their plants. They had to uproot the plants completely. They later got fresh soil to replace the contaminated one.”
Directly facing the emission roof of the factory is the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Busayo Ademola. The first thing Mrs. Ademola did when she saw our correspondent was to put her hand on her window net and draw a palm full of soot.
“That is what I face here every day! I am tired. I have told my husband that we need to leave, but it’s not that easy. Just like most people who live in this estate, we own our home. Where do we go to?”
She says that two of her children developed asthma after the family moved to the neighbourhood.
She says, “My children were not born asthmatic. We don’t have a history of asthma in our family. It was when we got here that they developed breathing problems. My last son’s asthma is really bad.
“Our former neighbour’s son died of cancer. He was a young engineer but after some years of living here, he developed cancer. After his death, the family relocated. We don’t know where they moved to.”
Mrs. Ademola said she had written letters to the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, the Lagos State Ministries of Health and Environment, reporting the activities of the factory; but she got no result.
The letter to LASEPA, dated June 13, 2009, reads, “Universal Steels Limited continually releases into its immediate environment huge amounts of gaseous and other environmentally polluting materials which, over the past 10 years, have taken a very significant toll on the health and standard of living of my family in the following ways:
“Two of my three children have developed asthma. My youngest child’s symptoms are chronic and he has been admitted in the hospital on several occasions, having suffered from attacks of the condition his physicians have characterised as life-threatening.
“The drapes and furniture in my house absorb the filthy gas emitted by the company to the extent that we have to thoroughly wash these items every fortnight — to very little effect.
“I have noticed a recent increase in the emissions to the extent that I wake up in the morning feeling lethargic and nauseous. When I clean my nostrils, I can see the filth we are being forced to inhale as a result of the reckless indifference exhibited by Universal Steels towards their immediate environment.
“We can no longer spread our laundry outside to dry because if we do so, by the time it dries, the laundry would have been sullied once more by the fumes from the factory.
“The examples I have given are the effects we have noticed, but more horrifying for me are the effects we have not seen that may manifest long-term as a result of our exposure to this noxious menace.”
Her son, Bayo, 18, a budding artiste, chips in, “My mum says I was not born this way. We got to this neighbourhood when I was two years old and I have had asthma since then. Often, I get my attacks in the midnight and that’s when the factory emits most of its fumes. When I travel out of the country for holidays, I am in perfect health.”
Recounting what he went through during his last attack, he says, “My last attack last month was scary. It was around 1am. I just could not breathe anymore. My parents had to take me to the hospital and I was on oxygen for days.”
Bayo, like other asthmatic people in the environment is constantly using a nebuliser to breathe. Another family whose children have asthma are the Iloris’ who have lived in the estate for 12 years.
Mrs. Ilori says, “Our last child is just six and he was not born that way. No one has asthma in the history of my family or my husband’s.
“My other son that is 10 years old also has it, but we have found a way to manage it. We use the nebuliser too. They have lived here all their lives and there was a time the attacks used to occur in the middle of the night. My kids don’t have the attacks when they travel or when they leave this environment. It is only when they return that they get sick with respiratory problems.”
24 years and counting
The oldest resident in the neighbourhood has lived there for 24 years. At over 80, he has been involved in the many entreaties to get the company to be considerate of the people living in its environs.
Requesting not to have his name mentioned in print, he says, “My wife and I are lucky that we have not registered any major health problem apart from cold, cough and catarrh. I have been living here for over 24 years and I met the factory emitting their gases in the air. If we are fortunate, what do we say about the future of this estate and the lives of little ones being born here?”
Mrs. Yomi Hopewell whose house is opposite the Ademolas’ and does not allow her children to play outdoors states, “Mrs. Ademola told me that her children developed asthma when they moved here. I have lived here for about seven years and my windows are permanently closed.
“Even with all the efforts I make, my son is always coughing. I am always buying cough syrup.”
Mrs. Okon’s grandchild also has asthma.
She says, “She was not born in the estate but right from when she was a baby, her parents would drop her with me while they went to work and would later pick her at night. I still find her asthma very curious because we don’t have a history of asthma in our family.”
The little girl goes to school in the estate. Apart from her school, two other schools are in the neighbourhood. The management of the schools refused to speak to SUNDAY PUNCH.
At the time our correspondent visited, the playing ground was empty, just like the playing areas of most homes in the estate. In Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, parents seldom allow their children to play outdoors.
“My kids say to me ‘Mummy, we want to ride our bicycle outside,’ but I say no,” Mrs. Hopewell says. “As a mother, I have told them that it is not possible for them to play outside, especially when the factory releases fumes round the clock.”
LASEPA orders investigation
Universal Steels Limited however denied the residents’ allegations. An official of the company, Mr. David Igwe, says, “It is not true. We have an abatement plant that takes care of the gases we emit. We bought the abatement plant two years ago and the Lagos State Government was here during the launch. Go to the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency and they will tell you what we have done.”
LASEPA confirmed that the company bought an abatement plant two years ago. Its General Manager, Mr. Adebola Shabi, said the agency was not aware that Universal Steels was still polluting the environment.
However, when our correspondent insisted that there was evidence to show that the company was still polluting the environment, he ordered an investigation into the allegation.
Editor’s note: The real names of all the residents who spoke to SUNDAY PUNCH are withheld on request to protect their privacy.