The rich also cry: Killer metals in the blood

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Universal-Steels-Limited-360x240In this second part of a three-part series, TOYOSI OGUNSEYE reports that medical tests conducted on 16 residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, off Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja, Lagos, who are exposed to fumes from Universal Steels Limited, revealed heavy metals in their blood, urine and water that could lead to death

On any weekday, the air over Universal Steels is certain to be thick with sooty fumes. These fumes are at the centre of a dispute that has pitted the company against the residents of an upscale estate in the heart of Lagos.

Residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate accuse the company of polluting their homes and environment with the heavy gases emanating from its huge machines. These gases, they add, are also responsible for the high incidence of cancer and respiratory ailments in the estate.

When our correspondent visited the company to get its side of the story, a company representative, Mr. David Igwe, was quick to dismiss the allegations.

Igwe said, “There is nothing like that. It is not true. We have an abatement plant that takes care of the gases we emit. We bought the 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. We don’t pollute the environment and there is no estate that is affected by our operations.”

The test

In late November, 16 of the residents agreed to SUNDAY PUNCH’s request for a series of blood and urine tests that would either validate their allegations or confirm the company’s innocence.

The tests were to determine the heavy metal concentrations in the residents’ blood systems and ascertain if they were within safe thresholds.

For the tests, researchers from the Department of Biochemistry, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, randomly selected16 residents who had lived in the estate for a minimum of seven years.

The team got 15 blood samples and 14 urine samples — one of the 16 residents did not give blood, while two declined to submit urine samples. Samples were also taken from borehole water, well water and a coconut from a 15-year-old coconut tree. SUNDAY PUNCH paid for the tests.

Killer metals in their blood

At the end of three weeks, the results were ready. The researchers published their findings in a 10-page report. The report showed that the concentrations of chromium, cadmium, zinc and iron in the blood of the residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate were much higher than the levels permitted by the World Health Organisation.

The head of the team that conducted the tests, Prof Albert Ebuehi, described the results as “alarming.”

He warned that the residents’ blood had “heavy metal toxicity” which posed serious health risks.

According to him, the test showed that the urine and blood of the residents were contaminated with chromium, cadmium, zinc and iron.

Ebuehi stated that the highest and lowest values of iron in the plasma of the tested residents were 8,067 per cent and 565 per cent respectively and were higher than the WHO permissible levels.

The cadmium level in the most contaminated resident among those tested was 130,000 per cent greater than the WHO acceptable level. The least contaminated individual had cadmium concentration that was 327 per cent, higher than the normal value of 0.0011mg/L.

According to professor, the levels of chromium in the tested residents were also ‘alarming.’

The 16 residents also had high zinc toxicity in their plasma. The highest value of zinc was 146 per cent, greater than the permissible level of 1.1mg/L, while the lowest was 7.3 per cent greater.

The trend was the same with the urine tests. The highest value of iron in urine was 4,963 per cent, greater than the WHO acceptable level while the lowest was 205 per cent.

For cadmium in urine, the highest value was 130,000 per cent, greater than the permissible level of 0.0011mg/L, with the lowest being 46,363 per cent.

The highest value of zinc was 143.6 per cent, higher than the WHO permissible level, while the lowest was 5.5 per cent.

The heavy gas contamination was also extremely high in borehole water, well water and coconut water samples found in Adekunle Fajuyi Estate.

The report stated that, “A final revelation became more glaring when these heavy metals were identified and determined in the coconut grown and harvested within the same vicinity. The metals in the coconut water were abnormally high and unsafe for human consumption.

“Heavy metals could enter coconut water through soil or water contamination. The metals have also affected the quality of the water in the environment. They were detected in heavy quantities.”

Killing them softly

Ebuehi, an ordinarily unflappable academic, was so alarmed by the results that he advised residents to “leave the estate as soon as possible.”

He said, “They must not eat any fruit grown in the area; all their plants are contaminated because of the pollution of underground water. Already, the offspring of the 16 residents sampled are likely to have the heavy metals too. That may lead to generations of families with toxic metals in their systems. They have to leave that place for their own good.”

Speaking on the likely effects of the metals that the residents have inhaled, Ebuehi said, “Inhalation of cadmium-containing fumes can result in metal fume fever, but may progress to chemical pneumonitis, pulmonary oedema and death.

“Also, high levels of free ferrous iron react with peroxides to produce free radicals, which are highly reactive and can damage DNA, proteins, lipids and other cellular components. Excess iron damages the heart, liver and elsewhere and this can lead to coma, metabolic acidosis, shock, liver failure, coagulopathy, respiratory distress syndrome, long-term organ damage and even death.

“Chronic toxicity of zinc may produce gastric ulcer, pancreatitis, anaemia, nausea, vomiting and pulmonary fibrosis. Acute toxicity is manifested as fever and anaemia. Lead was not detected in the test.”

‘Fatal without treatment’

In 1996, a team of medical scientists in India released the result of a study on the link between metal gases and gall bladder disease and cancer. The study was done over a year on 96 patients with gall bladder diseases at the University Hospital, Varanasi, India.

The study concluded that the metal toxicity in the patients was caused by the dangerously high concentrations of heavy metals in drinking water in the regions where the patients lived.

The team leader, Professor V.K. Shukla, wrote that, “The two regions lie down stream of the river Ganges, which is the main source of drinking, bathing, and irrigation water in this part of India and receives untreated domestic sewage and industrial and agricultural effluent.

“High concentrations of cadmium have been reported in sewage, irrigation water and vegetables grown in the area; and higher concentrations of heavy metals than recommended by the World Health Organisation have been reported in water from this region. Heavy metals as environmental pollutants have been implicated in human carcinogenesis.

“These metals, especially cadmium, are excreted and concentrated in the hepatobiliary system. These metals are known as chemical carcinogens, so the high biliary concentrations of these metals in carcinoma of the gall bladder may be a factor in this cancer.”

A consultant surgeon based in Lagos, Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie, agreed with this research. According to him, excess cadmium has been linked to both cancer of the urinary bladder and stomach.

He said, “A man who inhales a large dose of cadmium is not in much risk as one who does so in small amounts steadily over many years.

“Because cadmium is so toxic, even minimal exposure to dust can be extremely damaging to the body — the kidneys can shrink up to 30 per cent of their mass. Accumulation of cadmium in the lungs can cause pulmonary oedema. It is fatal without treatment. In its milder form, cadmium toxicity can cause flu-like symptoms of cough, catarrh conjunctivitis, bronchitis and lung fibrosis. Chronically, excess cadmium causes bone softening (osteomalacia) and bone brittleness (osteoporosis), leading to deep-seated pain and easy fractures.”

Ikhisemojie added that high concentrations of zinc can cause muscle cramps, headaches, blurring of vision, severe weakness and convulsions, while chromium causes “different types of bronchitis (severe respiratory disease), asthma, conjunctivitis, passage of blood in stools and lung cancer.”

As for iron, he said, “In excess amounts, it 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 chirosis. This will ultimately poison the organ leading to liver failure, as the majority of its cells have been made abnormal by the presence of excessive iron.”

A climatologist, Professor Temiloluwa Ologunorisa, of the Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, Osun State University, Osogbo, reiterated the opinions of the medical doctors.

According to Ologunorisa, apart from the gases which the residents inhale in dry form, rainfall converts the gases to wet form, which are washed to the ground surface including roof surface.

He said, “The gases undergo some chemical reactions after combining with rain water to form more dangerous substances. Ultimately, some of the gases or substances formed are carcinogenic, and others can cause respiratory ailments.”

Another professor of climatology, Olukayode Oladipo, said apart from the heavy metals detected during the research, emissions from the steel company include iron oxides, sulphur oxides, calcium oxides, hydrocarbons, carbonaceous compounds and chlorides.

He said, “It is therefore not surprising that high levels of chromium, cadmium, zinc and iron are found in the people living in the area. It is also not surprising that the water, air and soil around the industrial site have been contaminated with the series of emissions mentioned above.

“Operations of the industry must have some local effects on the thermal conditions (temperature) of the local environment. It will be interesting to find out if the temperature conditions around the steel company is higher than the surrounding environment to generate what we call urban heat island.”

Living in denial

When our correspondent told Igwe that there was evidence of the pollution from the company, he sidestepped the question and retorted, “We know how we settle journalists.”

He then left in a hurry, after promising to give the reporter another appointment. A subsequent text message to Igwe for the promised appointment was not replied. Our correspondent called him again; a man that sounded like Igwe picked the call but claimed it was a wrong number.

“Please, check the number you are calling. You must have a wrong number,” he said.

Residents said representatives of the company once told them that the area was mapped as an industrial estate, hence they had no reason to complain.

A resident, Mohammed Yusuf said, “That argument cannot stand. Even if they got here before us, does that mean that they should not be socially responsible? The government gave us approvals to live here as a residential estate. So, they cannot claim that because they were told that it was an industrial estate, they should be killing us gradually with poisonous gases.

“Even in developed counties like America and Britain, people live very close to so many manufacturing industries and these companies are very responsible. You don’t see the companies directing poisonous gases at the residents. They build high chimneys and direct their gases very far into the air. That is possible because they have a responsible government. But it is not the same here.”

The Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development, Lagos State, Mr. Toyin Ayinde, said Universal Steels could not excuse polluting the environment on the grounds of physical planning.

He said, “The Ogba area estate has both industrial and residential components and it is not unusual that they are so located. We have to return to the industrial safety laws. Does a man have a right to operate an industry at the expense of the people who are almost certainly his own clientele? I think not.

“This is where the Lagos State Ministry of the Environment and its agencies have a role to play, for they are the regulatory bodies to ensure that industrial effluent is controlled and environment-friendly.”

Drama at LASEPA

The government agency responsible for environmental matters in Lagos is the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency. LASEPA, by law, is expected to monitor, manage and protect the Lagos State environment from all forms of degradation arising from solid, liquid and gaseous waste.

The agency is also empowered by law to arrest persons, seal premises and seize items being used in the perpetuation of any offence.

When our correspondent met the General Manager of LASEPA, Mr. Adebola Shabi, the agency said it was not aware that Universal Steels was polluting the environment.

He said, “We were there two years ago to commission the abatement plant. I always use the company as an example for other manufacturing companies. We shut them down some years ago but after that, they bought the plant to take care of the greenhouse gases they emit. Apart from the harm they cause to humans, these gases deplete the ozone layer and cause climate change. The company takes care of the gases they emit. I am not aware that any person is suffering poor health due to gases from the company.”

When SUNDAY PUNCH insisted that there was evidence that the company emits gases with high metal concentrations every day apart from Sundays, Shabi raised a four-man team to investigate the allegation.

The following day, our correspondent led the LASEPA team to Adekunle Fajuyi Estate where they took pictures of thick emissions from the company that was settling in peoples’ homes. They also spoke to the residents.

After spending some hours in the estate, the team decided to go to Universal Steels to confront its officials with the evidence.

On getting to the company, Igwe was not pleased to see our correspondent with the team.

He said, “Government should not be conniving with the press. LASEPA is a regulatory agency that monitors the environment and I see nothing wrong with the agency paying a visit to the company. But you should not be partnering press while conducting your duties.”

At this point, the team asked our correspondent and the photojournalist to excuse the two parties.

Thirty minutes later, Igwe and the LASEPA officials came out and said they were going on a tour of the company’s facilities. Igwe said our correspondent and a female member of the team could not go on the tour because they had a pair of sandals on. SUNDAY PUNCH’s photojournalist was also not allowed on the tour, even though he wore a pair of covered shoes.

When the LASEPA officials and Igwe returned from the tour, the company representative crowed to our reporter, “I have shown LASEPA round, you can ask the agency all you want to know. They will tell you.”

On leaving the premises, the team told SUNDAY PUNCH that the company said it had only been emitting the gases for about two weeks and that it had bought some equipment to fix its leaking roofs and pipes.

Memorandum without understanding

Three days after the SUNDAY PUNCH’s visit, residents got an invitation from LASEPA for a meeting with the company on December 3.

At the end of the meeting, both parties signed a memorandum of understanding. A copy of the MoU, which was obtained by our correspondent, stated that Universal Steels agreed to “fix its faulty furnaces, repair its dilapidated roofs, and start a remedial measure.”

It also promised to replace the filtration bags of the abatement plant in two weeks and install a hood and blower to filter the emission. It agreed to alert LASEPA within 24 hours of breakdown and be financially responsible for the cost of any remediation work that may need to be done to abate the nuisance and restore the damaged environment.

The steel company promised in the MoU to complete its factory maintenance before the second week of January.

However, a few days after the MoU was signed, the residents told SUNDAY PUNCH that Universal Steels was still polluting the air with the poisonous emissions in the middle of the night.

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