Death by instalment: Inside Calabar community where oil spill left trail of deaths, tragedies (II)

In this last segment of a two-part report, ADETOLA BADEMOSI relates the health risks associated with the oil spill on farms and water bodies in Ekorinim community in Calabar, Cross River State.

To further verify claims of water contamination in the community, test analysis was conducted on two water sources – borehole and river. Borehole samples were taken from a tap in one of the houses located around Amphibious Training School while water was also taken from the Ekorinim River within the community.

Both water samples were collected using a glass cup and amber bottles and taken for analysis within three days of collection.

The laboratory analysis was conducted at one of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency’s (NOSDRA)-accredited laboratories in Abuja. Both samples were tested separately for five heavy metals: chromium, cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic while another test was conducted for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon (TPH). These five metals were selected considering their level of toxicity and relation with petroleum products.

Heavy metals are natural components of the earth’s crust. They cannot be degraded or destroyed. According to the 2011 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the adverse health effects of heavy metals on children,” heavy metal pollution can arise from many sources but often arises from metal purification processes, such as the smelting of copper and the preparation of nuclear fuels.

“Unlike organic pollutants, heavy metals do not decay and thus pose a different kind of challenge for remediation.”

For instance, cadmium considerably exists in the environment, as a result of human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels, metal ore combustion and waste burning.

The WHO in its report on exposure to cadmium describes it as human carcinogen as it exerts toxic effects on the kidney, the skeletal system and the respiratory system.

The report reads in part: “The kidney is the critical target organ. Cadmium accumulates primarily in the kidneys, and its biological half-life in humans is 10–35 years. This accumulation may lead to renal tubular dysfunction.”

Also, the global health body explains that human exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic occurs mainly through the consumption of groundwater containing naturally high levels of inorganic arsenic, food prepared with this water, and food crops irrigated with high-arsenic water sources.

Like cadmium, arsenic can be released into the atmosphere and water through human activities, such as metal smelting, combustion of fossil fuels (especially coal), mining, timber treatment with preservatives, and, historically, agricultural pesticide production and use.

The immediate symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning according to the WHO include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. These are followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping and, in extreme cases, death.


Test results

For Sample A (borehole), while there was zero arsenic contaminant, cadmium was 0.010mg/l. This is higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2008 and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency 2011 (NESREA) maximum limit of 0.003 mg/l.

Lead on the other hand is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the earth crust. Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world.

WHO in its report on lead poisoning says: “Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.

“Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight.”

Trace of chromium in the sample is 0.080Mg/l as against the maximum limit of 0.05 while there were no traces of lead and mercury.

However, for the total petroleum hydrocarbon, Sample A, according to laboratory results, had no traces of petroleum hydrocarbon.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) describes Total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) as a large family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil. Crude oil is used to make petroleum products, which can contaminate the environment.


It says:”TPH is a mixture of chemicals, but they are all made mainly from hydrogen and carbon, called hydrocarbons. Scientists divide TPH into groups of petroleum hydrocarbons that act alike in soil or water. These groups are called petroleum hydrocarbon fractions. Each fraction contains many individual chemicals.”


Embed Sample A and B results

Meanwhile, for Sample B (river), the traces of arsenic and cadmium are 0.002 and 0.0183 respectively while chromium and lead presence in the sample is 0.160Mg/l and 0.040mg/l respectively.


No trace of mercury was found.

Ideally, the WHO maximum permissible limit for arsenic and cadmium is 0.01 and 0.003 respectively, chromium 0.05, lead 0.01 and mercury 0.006.

The TPH in the sample was 0.045Mg/l. However, the 2008 WHO report did not specify the permissible limit for the contaminant.

Heavy metals in human body pose severe health risk—Expert

Mr Idowu Olonikinse, a laboratory scientist, explained that the outcome of the test showed significant presence of heavy metals in both samples, especially cadmium and lead which surpassed the WHO standard.

He said heavy metals are non-biodegradable hence when trapped in the body system, either through drinking, food or inhalation, accumulate and pose severe health risk.

He specifically lays emphasis on lead and cadmium which according to him are the most toxic of the metals.

“When we talk about heavy metals, we mean lead, cadmium, chromium and two others. They are non-biodegradable; they cannot be broken down in the body system. For instance, take lead, it is one of the toxic heavy metals we have which is contained in the water.

“We have levels for these. Anything that is above the set standards, especially for potable water is extremely dangerous, not just dangerous.  Because of its non-biodegradability, it will keep accumulating in the body,” he explains.

Although he said victims may not experience any immediate serious health issues and may even disregard the warnings on dangers of such metals, in the long term, the effect would be disastrous.

“If someone keeps taking lead above the set standards, it might not affect him or her immediately, it will keep accumulating. Likewise the other metals, so very soon, it will knock the person down.

“Lead and cadmium are the most toxic of all the heavy metals. They are not good at all. One can still manage arsenic, nickel and other metals, not that they are even good for the body, but you see these two, lead and cadmium, are most toxic.”


Ekorinim not considered host community

Unfortunately, Ekorinim and similar communities in other non-oil producing states may have to live with the menace for years if the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is passed.

The bill is aimed at fostering sustainable prosperity within host communities, provide direct social and economic benefits from petroleum operations to host communities, enhance peaceful and harmonious co-existence between licensees or lessees and host communities and also create a framework to support the development of host communities.

However, non-oil producing states that are in one way or the other impacted by activities of oil companies like oil spills or blowouts are excluded in the new Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

A careful study of the bill indicated that some communities that play hosts to pipeline infrastructure and as a result have had to deal with severe oil spill issues may not be captured under the new bill. Rather, it emphasises on communities within upstream petroleum operations as well as deep offshore or as determined by the settlor (international oil companies).

In view of this, only oil companies are mandated to set up host communities development trusts and can decide who the benefitting communities are.

Chapter 3, 235 part of the bill on host community development reads: “Settlor shall incorporate a trust for the benefit of the host communities for which the settlor is responsible (“host community development trust”). Where there is a collectivity of settlors operating under a joint operating agreement with respect to upstream petroleum operations, the operator appointed under the agreement shall be responsible for compliance with this Chapter on behalf of the settlors.

“For settlors operating in shallow water and deep offshore, the littoral communities and any other community determined by the settlors shall be host communities for the purposes of this Act.”


We recorded several cases of diarrhea—Health centre management

Mrs Akeh

Mrs. Regina Akeh, community head, Ekorinim health centre, in a chat with Nigerian Tribune said the centre recorded several cases of diarrhea when she assumed duty in 2017.

She hinted that the surge in the number of diarrhea cases at the period was caused by residents’ sources of drinking water.

According to her, they were constantly treating such cases until the centre took it upon itself to educate residents on prioritising safe drinking water by boiling or opting for packaged water.

“Initially when I came here, we constantly had cases of diarrhea. Because of that, I told them that if they could not buy water, they should boil any water they wanted to drink because I did not know their source of water,” Akeh said.

The diarrhea cases may however be due to excessive intake of arsenic which in acute cases, may lead to vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.


Ministry of Environment accuses community of complicity

While reacting to the report, Akpa Agbor, Director, Environmental Quality Control and Standard Enforcement at the state’s Ministry of Environment alleged community members were contributors to their current predicament.

He said during fuel scarcity, residents tampered with the pipeline in an attempt to steal products, thus leading to spillages.

“We have a lot of tank farms within that area. Some of these community members when there is fuel scarcity mostly, tamper with such pipes in an attempt to steal products; that is why you see the spillages in most cases.

“If there is any report of oil spillage I think the community should have written to the ministry and we would have swung into action. We have not received any official complaints from them. That is where the problem is. For you to make a complaint, you should copy the state ministry.

“Most of the time, I visit the tank farms within the area, but officially I have not heard reports of any severe case of oil spillages within the affected area you are talking about. The ministry will not visit except and unless the community writes officially informing us about what they are facing,” he stressed.


We’ll investigate, conduct cleanup—NOSDRA


“When they say this has been happening for over 15 years, is it that they have never heard of a government establishment called NOSDRA?” Queried Mr. Musa Idris, Director General, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA).

The DG who was met at the agency’s headquarters, Abuja, said NOSDRA was unaware of the development and such report was not brought to the attention of the agency, else it would have swung into action.

“They probably wrote to the state’s Ministry of Environment or NNPC. Yes, NNPC is the owner of the pipelines and tank farms in some of those areas although there are other private oil companies that have their tank farms in those areas and there is a big depot owned by NPSC

“On the report of hydrocarbon in wells around the community, that should be as a result of leakages from the pipelines which can impact on the drinking water in that area. These are some of the things we are making sure to avert by asking those who operate those filling stations or tank farms to take adequate measures to prevent spillage,” he said.

However, he said the agency would visit the community to conduct investigations “where there is pollution. There is going to be a redress and this will be cleaning up the area of impact.”


NNPC rules out possibility of pipeline leakages

While reacting to the report, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) ruled out the possibility of pipeline leakages which could have led to the oil spillage.

It said it was unlikely to leave a pipeline to continue to leak out oil for over 15 years as this was unrealistic.

The corporation’s spokesperson, Dr. Kennie Obateru told Nigerian Tribune that most times, the pipelines were being vandalised by people living within the community.

“The experience there and most of the vandalism are caused by the people. Usually when we notice, we don’t want to lose our products. Usually once we notice there is a leak, we close the pipeline.

“So I don’t believe that we would be losing products and we would just leave it like that. If a pipe is tampered with or ruptured and there is a leakage, you will definitely find the product on the surface. But what led to that and what has been done about it,” he said.

However, he assured that the corporation would investigate the allegation with a bid to addressing the issues.

“When issues like this come up, NNPC investigates and gets to the root of the matter and does the needful. Like I earlier mentioned, we are in business; we are not likely to allow our products to freely flow out of a pipeline that has been leaking for 15 years,” he added.


  • Support for this report was provided by  the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) through funding support from Ford Foundation.



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