Health of Host Communities at Risk Due to Unhealthy Industrial Waste Disposal

Around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the “lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia. – The World Health Organization (WHO)

From early 2000, Calabar, Nigeria’s first pre-independence capital city, was regarded as one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the country.

Many craved and were eager to visit the ‘People’s Paradise’ with its scenery and uncontaminated air. The environment, its culture, tradition, cuisines, and loving people made Calabar one of Nigeria’s best-known destinations but that was then.

Calabar has become the talk of the town, not because of its beautiful landscape but for its offensive and stinking environment.

Apart from heaps of refuse littering major streets and highways in the metropolis, the odor and wastewater emanating from Flour Mills Nigeria Plc Calabar, located along the Murtala Mohammed highway; entrance into the city is unbearable.

One can barely walk or drive through the route without twisting the nose in protest. Residents of Essien Town, Ekorinim, New Obutong, Ikot Ishie, and Diamond among other communities bear the brunt of the wastewater and odor oozing out from the company for years. The irresponsible waste disposal practice of the company puts the communities around it at risk.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the “lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.”

It added that “ambient air pollution alone caused 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period.”

The 2021 update of the WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) is “designed to offer guidance in reducing public health impacts of air pollution” and other industrial waste, “based on expert evaluation of current scientific evidence.” Flour Mills has failed to adhere to this.

Residents Bear Brunt, Cry For Help

Restaurants, supermarkets, fruit stands, and other perishable consumables are sold close to the factory. Mrs. Felicia Bassey, a restaurant owner within the area, decried the negative impact of the waste on her business.

She said people find it difficult to come to eat in her restaurant because they keep complaining of the repugnant odour. She said most times the food she cooks gets spoiled and that has made her prepare in very small quantities in order not to close down the business.

“This is something unbearable, it is bringing low patronage,” Bassey said. “Customers would want to come and eat but because of the repugnant odour, they will say ‘Madam I can’t sit here and eat’ it is scaring my customers away. I believe when the government steps in, it will stop.”

Christiana Udo Atang, who sells beverages in the same location said she bears the consequences of the company’s indiscretion.

“I don’t know what the government will do about it, we are not comfortable inhaling this smell, it is disturbing, especially for most of us doing business,” Atang said.

“For me who is selling consumables, when people buy from me, they will complain they can not sit; they even pity us and ask how we manage to cope. It really affects businesses here, people would not want to stop and patronize me; when I open my bread and other things, they will be screaming cover it, cover it so that it won’t contaminate the bread.

“Government should sanction these people so that they can do the right thing; they should have alternative methods of disposing of the waste,” as she stopped tying her groundnut in quantum.

Mr. Moses Essien, a professional welder is having a hot afternoon nap outside a shade in his shop when his apprentice Archibong woke him up thinking this reporter was a client coming to patronize his skills. “Sir, someone wants to see you,” Archibong said. With a bare body and red eyes, Mr. Moses was vexed when realized this reporter was not a client. Moses suffers the same fate as other business owners within the area – low or no patronage daily.

“Honestly speaking, the smell from Flour Mills is very serious but we don’t know what to do,” Essien told CrossRiverWatch when he calmed. “Whenever it smells, it smells like feces, you can’t even stand here to enter a vehicle, sometimes people will turn around to check if there are faeces in the gutters not knowing it is industrial waste. At this juncture, it seems I’m wasting my time talking because we have complained several times.

Agba Friday is a tricycle rider who plies and picks up passengers from the junction to the community. He said he and his colleagues are not spared by the smell, positing it is poison released into the environment.

Provisions shop owner, Ruben Valentine also shares in the pain. The average-height, dark-skinned Ruben expressed his displeasure because customers mistake his shop for always having dead rats all the time, “not knowing it is coming from a multinational company that is making millions daily. This is bad, I mean it is extremely bad.”

Community Leaders Voice Out

While residents share unpalatable experiences, Essien Town Community leaders are also caught in the same web. The village head, the council secretary, and the youth leader said they have exhausted channels to sort things out but to no avail as both Flour Mills of Nigeria plc and the government have failed to solve the problem.

Chief Essien Inyang Offiong, the village head of Essien Town Community, said the council had written several letters to various authorities without any definitive response.

“We have complained and written several times to them but they told us it is not poisonous, I told them that anything the nose does not accept means the body system does not like it,” the village head said. “We just hope that one day the redeemer will come and help us.”

Chief Offiong who doubles as a clergy added: “These people (Flour Mills) what they can do is that at the end of the year, they will give one hundred thousand Naira to the youth, about one to two hundred thousand to elders and one or two scholarships but that is their Corporate Social Responsibility, how about others including passerby?”

“It has gone beyond our scope,” said Apostle Paul Okon, the secretary of Essien Town Community, while speaking with CrossRiverWatch. The Proprietor whose school is meters away from Flour Mills company said authoritatively: “If you go house to house, I’m quite sure that as a result of that effect a lot of health issues have come up which have not been reported publicly but I know because I am within the village.” – The Secretary of Essien Town Community, Apostle Paul Okon

On his part, the community’s (youth leader), Francis Ekpo said the youths have towed the path of dialogue to arrive at a reasonable point but should dialogue not yield a positive result they will be left with the option of staging a protest or taking legal actions adding that 90% of the community is affected by the activities.

Government Berate Flour Mills’ Activities, To Swim Into Action

The State Ministry of Health told CrossRiverWatch that the activities of Flour Mills Nigeria Plc in the Calabar metropolis constitute a nuisance to public health and businesses.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Dr. Iwara Iwara said a company of such should not be found in a residential environment.

“This is some of the reasons industries are sited out of residential areas because in residential areas all of us will smell it but if it was sited far away from residential areas, nobody will smell it.”

Dr. Iwara noted that though the affected communities have not filed an official complaint, with the interview, a team in the ministry will be dispatched.

“We have not had any of the complaints from residents or communities but I have experienced that when I drive around that axis,” Dr. Iwara said.

“Yes, to the residents, it will be serious consequences because you are running a business around the area, maybe an outdoor business and people would want to sit down to drink or eat, and suddenly you begin to have the smell, it will cause everyone to disperse and therefore cause loss of customers; that could be a very big side effect, big consequence and a very big influence on the businesses of people around, it is quite nauseating.”

“What we and Four Mills need to do is to select the time of processing and discharging the waste so that at a point, it will not disturb residents and their businesses,” assuring, “we have Environmental Health unit, Food, and Safety unit and the Occupational Health unit in the Ministry, so having raised this issues I don’t think is something we need to waste time.
– The Permanent Secretary to Cross River State Ministry of Health, Dr. Iwara Iwara

“I will make sure my team is on standby and go there and see how they can tame the nuisance being caused by such an activity; we are going to swim into action to ensure that it is tamed; that is a very big nuisance and pollution of course.”

Meanwhile, the Commissioner of Environment, Mfon Bassey failed to honor an interview scheduled. The snub was coming a few days after he failed to appear before the State House of Assembly on the continuous heaps of refuse that litter the metropolis. This is also as a heap of refuse was at the entrance into the ministry when CrossRiverWatch visited.

Expert Warns Of Possible Epidemic

A medical lab scientist Mr. Felix Ukam described the environmental pollution from Flour Mills and heaps of refuse littered the Calabar metropolis as disgusting and dangerous to health.

Ukam, the Executive Director of the Centre For HealthWorks, Development and Research Initiative (CHEDRES) warned that if nothing is done immediately, there is a possibility of cancer and epidemic outbreak.

“When you perceive the odour it shows that something is wrong somewhere, microorganisms are carrying out their activities; most mycobacterial feed on organic material and they emit sulfate which can further be broken down to ammonia; it is usually not palatable when you pass through such an environment,” he explained.

“For an industry that is producing feed and flour and is careless about it, it means the regulatory aspect of it has not been followed. Even though there are environmental laws here and there nobody is executing thereby giving room for all to do what he or she likes. Odorous materials or refuse are not healthy for human health. Most of the chemicals are cancerous and can lead to cancer.

“Outside that, there is the tendency that we could have an epidemic of cholera outbreak. It is hazardous for someone to continue to inhale that type of smell and pollution; those who are asthmatic will not be comfortable in such an environment. People are sick but we don’t know why.”

Ukam’s further warning came after there have been various confirmed cases of cholera outbreaks and death in some LGAs in the State.

He said civil society organizations and the government must work together to create an environment where all living beings can thrive.

Flour Mills Nigeria Plc Keep Mum

Flour Mills Nigeria Plc seems not to bother about the health of the inhabitants of Essien Town and neighbouring communities. Following public complaints, CrossRiverWatch reached out to the management. The General Manager of the company’s Calabar plant referred this reporter to the Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) manager, Mr. Juwon Osamika, who initially agreed to grant the interview but all of a sudden said the company would get back to CrossRiverWatch. That was never done for weeks and at the time of filing this report. Several calls put across were never answered or returned.

By Patrick Obia

This story was supported by the Africa Data Hub Community Journalism Fellowship.

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