Oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in Nigeria back in 1956. That discovery took place in Oloibiri, which is located in today’s Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region. However, what would have been expected to be a blessing to the people has somewhat turned out a curse.
The people in the oil-producing areas of Nigeria have suffered a lot as a result of oil exploration and production activities. One of the ways their lives have been impacted negatively is in the aspect of health. Worse still, the extent of the hazards isn’t fully known yet.
The Niger Delta
The area known as the Niger Delta covers roughly 7,700 square miles within wetlands measuring some 27,000 square miles. It is broadly divided into four ecological zones, namely: freshwater swamps, mangrove swamp forests, lowland rainforests, and coastal barrier islands.
The ecosystem boasts (or used to boast) a remarkable biodiversity ranking among the highest in the world. It is said to support more freshwater fish species than any other in West Africa. The ecosystem supports rich flora and fauna while also having a vast expanse of arable land.
It is little wonder then that agriculture is the main source of income for its estimated 20 million people, whose ethnicity cuts across around 40 different groups. Farming and fishing – the two leading local occupations – are under huge threat from the activities of the petroleum industry.
Oil Spills and Pollution
Companies in the petroleum industry are causing serious environmental problems in the Niger Delta. Residents claim that incidents of oil spillage occur almost every day, with this having dire effects on both the environment and the people.
Nigeria’s Department of Petroleum Resources was quoted in a 2010 report as stating that oils totaling 1.89 million barrels were dumped into the delta in the period from 1976 to 1996. Also, according to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), around 2,300 cubic meters (610,000 gallons) of oil get spilled annually in an average of 300 distinct incidents.
Yet, experts believe those figures are rather conservative. The World Bank, for instance, stated that “minor” spills are not added to these figures. The true amount may be up to 10 times higher, the bank claimed.
A 2010 report also stated that around 9-13 million barrels of oil have been spilled into the Niger delta since 1958. A different source even claimed as much as 100 million barrels were spilled in the period from 1960 to 1997.
The activities of oil companies have led to the contamination of air, surface water, groundwater, land, and crops. The environment has been polluted with hydrocarbons, including known carcinogens, trace metals, and naturally-occurring radioactive materials. These pollutants pose a huge risk to both the lives and livelihood of people in the Delta.
A sizeable proportion of the highly biodiverse ecosystem has been damaged or threatened by oil spills.
Implications of Oil Spills on Human Health
Oil spillage and pollution can have serious life-changing effects on the health of people living in an affected area. Several communities in oil-producing areas in Nigeria have been reported to experience such dire consequences.
Some experts believe that the harmful health effects of oil pollution haven’t fully manifested yet – they’re still emerging. These harmful outcomes have started to come to light, but more serious consequences may be ahead.
According to campaign groups, there has been an increase in cases of child malnutrition due to crude oil spills. Oil has rendered large areas of farmland infertile with some food crops also contaminated by harmful substances.
Household food security is, therefore, under considerable threat. Researchers have predicted that this could reduce by 60 percent.
A sizeable portion of the reduced amount of food available may not even be good enough for consumption. For example, researchers say cassava’s crude protein content could drop by 40 percent as a result of oil spills. Ascorbic acid in vegetables could fall by up to 36 percent.
As a result, research suggests that there may be a 24 percent increase in the cases of childhood malnutrition coupled with serious hunger pangs.
Researchers have also established a link between oil spills and neonatal mortality. It was reported in one study that about 16,000 babies died not later than the first month of their birth in the Niger Delta in 2012, with this attributed to oil pollution.
Oil spills may also lead to more unintended abortion cases, as per research. They are also believed to increase the incidence of premature births.
Studies also suggest that pollutants linked to oil spills can cause a person to develop cancer. This is due to chromatin dysregulation and the impact on DNA methylation.
Researchers have reported high levels of harmful crude oil pollutants in the oil-producing areas impacted. These pollutants include known carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) and benzo [alpha] pyrene. For instance, researchers say a higher PAH concentration explains why certain cancer types were more common in Port Harcourt, a city in the Niger Delta, than in the non-oil-producing Ibadan.
The risk of cancer also increases with the preference for asbestos-based roofing, which is believed to withstand acid rain resulting from nearby gas flares.
There is evidence that crude oil spills may cause infertility. This is based on results from animal studies. Researchers observed this after feeding rats and other animals foods that had been tainted with crude oil.
Oil companies and groups (both local and foreign) have provided funds to remediate the environment. However, more needs to be done in the aspect of remediation. The people in this area also need urgent long-term medical care to protect them against the harmful effects of oil spills.