After medical tests showed that residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, off Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja, Lagos, had unusually high metal toxicity in their blood, urine and water, TOYOSI OGUNSEYE reports that they are now afraid for their lives
Last week, Mr. Adebayo Balomo retired the only coconut tree in his compound for good. It was a tough decision for the septuagenarian. For 15 years, the tree had served him, his family and friends well, providing sweet coconuts.
“That coconut tree has been there for about 15 years and I eat the fruit all the time. I entertain my visitors with it,” he said.
But Balomo said he had to take the decision after seeing the results of the medical tests carried out on the residents and flora of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate.
Residents of the estate, an upscale community in the heart of Lagos, had accused a nearby steel factory, Universal Steels Limited, of polluting their bodies, air and water with dangerous metal gases.
SUNDAY PUNCH had paid for the medical tests carried out at the Department of Biochemistry, College of Medicine, University of Lagos.
The tests showed that the residents and the flora, including Balomo’s coconut tree, had killer concentrations of gaseous metals in them.
Balomo, the estate’s oldest resident, is yet to recover from the shock.
He said, “For the test to show that the coconut I have been eating for years is contaminated is depressing. That means that I have been feeding my family and my visitors with poisonous fruit.
“I am an old man now, but what about the young ones whose bloodstreams are now contaminated? I am worried.”
The worries expressed by Balomo were also shared by all the residents. It was learnt that some residents who did not partake in the tests later went to private medical laboratories to ascertain the concentration of metals in their bodies.
They did this after seeing the results of the SUNDAY PUNCH-sponsored tests.
The medical assay had shown that all the tested 16 residents had very high concentrations of chromium, cadmium, zinc and iron in their bloodstreams. In some of these residents, the concentrations of metals were 10,000 per cent higher than the levels that the World Health Organisation considers safe.
The heavy metal contamination was also extremely high in borehole water, well water and coconut water samples found in the estate.
The head of the team that conducted the tests, Prof. Albert Ebuehi, described the results as “alarming” and urged the residents to relocate to save their lives.
Ebuehi stated that apart from the residents getting medical treatment, a permanent solution must be found to the pollution in the environment.
“They need to see a toxicologist that will treat them for the metal toxicity. But even if they are receiving treatment and they are still exposed to the gases from the company, it defeats the purpose of the medication,” he said.
‘What do we do now?’
When our correspondent visited the estate last Tuesday, the air was thick with despair.
At the Ademolas’, the worry was palpable. And it was for a good reason: the house where the Ademolas have lived for 16 years lies directly in front of the discharge roof of Universal Steels Limited. The fumes from the company’s huge machines are discharged through this roof.
Not surprisingly, all the blood and urine samples of the four members of the Ademola family tested positive to metal toxicity. A visibly worried Mrs. Ademola said the test results had dampened the joy of her family.
She said, “Since we got the result of the test, we have been very sad. It was a huge shock to us. My two sons got asthma when we got to this estate. I wrote letters to the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, the Lagos State Ministries of Health and Environment, reporting the activities of Universal Steels. But I did not know how bad the situation was until we saw the results of the tests.
“We have gone to see our family doctor who is a general practitioner. He was dazed when we showed him the results. He said the matter was beyond him and he referred us to a toxicologist who gave us several medical procedures to adopt.”
For Mr. Mohammed Yusuf, moving out of the estate is the only alternative.
He said, “I planned to relocate from this estate, but the tests have made up my mind for me. Even my water treatment plant has large deposits of iron. I am going. I have increased the tempo of construction work in my new home and I just have a few weeks to spend in this estate.
“This is my house and I know that no one may be willing to buy it from me because everyone now knows we inhale poisonous gases, but I don’t care.”
Shortly after SUNDAY PUNCH published the test results last week, some residents of the estate got together and mulled the idea of a future class suit against Universal Steels. Others are not willing to wait.
Mrs. Ademola fumed, “I will treat myself and my family, but we will meet in court. The estate association is talking about a class action suit, but I will not wait for that. I will take them to court independently and still partake in whatever the estate decides.
“I have spoken to my lawyer and Universal Steels will be hearing from me soon. They are the only steel factory in this place and my home faces them directly. The medical investigation showed that members of my family had excess iron, cadmium, zinc and chromium in our blood and they expect me to keep quiet? I won’t!”
Another family that has plans to sue Universal Steels is the Okon family. Its patriarch, Mr. Michael Okon, said the result of the medical test was enough proof that the residents had been right all along.
He said, “We are going to court. What other evidence do we need apart from the medical tests? We have lived here for 12 years and where we were living before, there was no factory. So, the company cannot tell us that our systems got contaminated from somewhere else. I am ready to show the court where I was living before. Moreover, 16 people in the estate were randomly selected for the test and we all had metal toxicity in our systems. It shows that there is something wrong with where we live.
“Every day for 12 years, I was exposed to the gases from Universal Steels. I will wake up in the morning and blow out soot that settled in my nose overnight. My throat would be filled with dark substances. My daughter and granddaughter have breathing problems. My daughter even had to relocate from here when it got really bad. The gases killed all my plants. I have pictures as evidence.
“The estate is talking about a class action suit, but I am not going to wait for that. I have spoken to my lawyers. We are going to court after the New Year holiday.”
Poisonous gases everywhere
Across Nigeria, the problem of poisonous gaseous pollution is widespread. Shortly after SUNDAY PUNCHpublished the story of the state, the newspaper’s email was inundated with mails from readers who lamented that affected communities were often abandoned by government agencies.
One of the readers, James Nduka, wrote: “I live within the Adeniji-Abisogun Leigh Estate, off Wempco Road, Ogba, Lagos. There are two metal manufacturing companies there. We moved there in 1984 and residents in my estate have had several battles with these Chinese companies. We have written several petitions to the state government and appropriate ministries, but we got very little result. There was a time one of the companies was sealed off, but that action was short-lived, as they re-opened a few months later.
“The fumes they emit are toxic and poisonous. Most of our plants and guava trees ended up with black spots before dying. When these companies emit their gases in the evenings, residents have to hurriedly shut their windows, blocking proper ventilation. Only God knows what damage it has caused the residents there. Our sky in this area is normally dark grey because of the pollution.”
Mr. Lanre Ibitoye, a resident of a heavily industrialised part of Ikorodu, also wrote to SUNDAY PUNCH. He said, “If the blood, urine and water of residents in Adekunle Fajuyi Estate are contaminated because of one steel company, you can only imagine our fate. There are so many metal-manufacturing companies in our area. We have written several letters to government that the emissions are killing us, but no one cares about our petitions. If the media are not involved, government will not do anything.”
In other parts of Nigeria, the story isn’t different. In Zamfara State, lead poisoning from the operations of mining companies led to the death of 150 children last year. Residents of some Plateau and Nasarawa communities have long complained of their exposure to the radioactive emission of mining companies. In Ijebu East Local Government Area of Ogun State, communities close to huge quarrying companies complain that the lives of residents are made miserable by the vibrations and flying stone pellets from quarrying activities. In the Niger Delta, oil producing communities are always battling with oil companies over oil spills.
Figures from the United Nations Environment Programme also show that pollution and the inevitable conflict between communities and businesses happen all over the world. UNEP estimates that more than one billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution annually, with the majority being in Africa. Studies have also linked urban air pollution to one million premature deaths and one million pre-native deaths each year.
UNEP also says that rapid urbanisation has resulted in increasing urban air pollution in major cities, especially in developing countries. It is estimated that air pollution costs approximately two per cent of Gross Domestic Product in developed countries and five per cent in developing countries.
Investment or curse?
A few days after the first part of the story was published, the Lagos State Public Advice Centre, an agency under the Ministry of Justice, called our correspondent and said it wanted to find a lasting solution to the pollution in the estate.
The agency met the residents of the estate last week and asked them to submit their complaints against Universal Steels. The residents confirmed that they were at the agency where they were asked to sign some documents.
However, residents and communities affected by industrial pollution often accuse government of being reluctant to implement environment laws in order not to scare away investors.
As a developing country, Nigeria’s economy relies heavily on Foreign Direct Investment. Some of these investments come in the form of manufacturing businesses promoted by companies like Universal Steels.
According to the Minister of Trade and Investment, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, Nigeria has been rated as the 11th emerging economy of the world and, as a result of this growth, it has attracted huge foreign direct investments. In 2011, the total FDI value was $8.9bn.
For the Chief Executive Officer, Occupational Health and Safety Managers, Mr. Ehi Iden, the huge inflow of capital into the economy is sometimes detrimental to the health of citizens.
Iden said, “It is not enough for the Federal Government to keep asking for foreign investment without caring about Nigerians. If we make so much money from these manufacturing companies and Nigerians are dying because of the pollution that emanates from these companies, what is the benefit of investments then?
“Most of these companies come here, treat Nigerians the way they like, pollute the environment and nothing happens. They hardly care about the welfare of their employees and they pay peanuts. I have handled so many cases where casual workers in manufacturing companies were maimed for life and nothing happened.
“Government should be very strict with companies like Universal Steels, but that is not the case, unfortunately. It is either government relocates the company or relocates residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate. And if they must live in the same environment, the company must be made to build a big chimney that will direct its gases directly into the air.
“Then we have to talk about compensation too. Who will bear the cost of the remediation in the estate? Who will pay the bills of the residents that need the metals flushed out of their systems, water and soil? These are the things a responsive government should be looking at. If the people in the estate have metal toxicity in their bodies, then the employees in these factories must be worse off.”
Already, a Non-Governmental Organisation, Environmental Rights Action, has announced plans to organise a protest rally against Universal Steels.
The Head of Media, ERA, Philip Jakpor, said the protest would further sensitise government to the plight of the residents and possibly bring about a lasting solution to the pollution in the estate.
He said, “We are going to protest in front of the steel company after the New Year break. This cannot go on. We will involve other NGOs and the media.”
Beyond protests and agitation, stakeholders have said only the overhauling and the effective implementation of existing environmental laws will save the situation.
Jakpor said, “We have so many environmental laws, but they are not all-encompassing. Some of them are as old as when Nigeria got its independence. We have some recent ones, but they are restricted to different industries like environmental laws that deal with gas flaring, oil and gas, tobacco, etc. And these laws are abstracts from international treaties. The laws should be domiciled in the ministry of environment.
“We don’t have one comprehensive document we can call Nigeria’s environmental law. And that is where the problem is.”
At long last…
On Friday, some respite finally came the way of the residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate. The Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency said it had sealed off Universal Steels because of the harm it had caused the residents.
The General Manager, LASEPA, Mr. Adebola Shabi, in an electronic mail, said the closure followed the reports by SUNDAY PUNCH and complaints of the residents.
According to him, the agency had investigated similar complaints against the company in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2012, while it had sanctioned the company twice.
He said, “The attention of LASEPA has been drawn to the contents of SUNDAY PUNCH’s publications of December 16 and 23, 2012 respectively on the issue of emission of fumes from Universal Steels Limited, an iron and steel manufacturing company.
“In the publication, various grave allegations were made against the company by the residents on the effects of the emission on their health and wellbeing.
“The agency is aware that there are health impacts of the emissions from such facilities on human health. Apart from the climate change impact, the emission of sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, methane hydrocarbons and particulate matter into the environment results in various respiratory problems, including asthma.
“Earlier, the company submitted environmental impact assessment reports in 2006, 2008 and 2011. It has also installed some abatement plants.”
Shabi said the company would not be reopened until it had fulfilled all the promises it made in the recent Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the residents and LASEPA.
He added, “We will ensure that the company subsequently develops a comprehensive environmental management plan, which will be vigorously monitored and implemented. A post-impact assessment of the effects of the emission on the environment will be undertaken and the appropriate remedial strategies recommended will be implemented.
“We will conduct a comprehensive review of existing reports on the blood and urine tests of the residents, while Universal Steels will be encouraged to carry out remedial works within the estate, including the planting of new species of trees aimed at improving the quality of air within the estate.”
The residents said even though they were happy about the sealing off of Universal Steels, the company had been sealed off previously, without the company taking steps to stop the pollution.
The Chairman of the residents’ association, Chief Taiwo Ojora, who was the only resident that allowed his real name to be used, said, “We are glad the company has been sealed off, but that is not the permanent solution, because they are going to reopen. They promised to take measures against releasing their poisonous gases into the atmosphere in the MoU we signed with them, but those are temporary measures. We need government to find a permanent solution to the pollution of our bodies, water and soil.”
Editor’s note: The names of all residents who spoke to Sunday PUNCH are withheld to protect their privacy.