In Adekunle Fajuyi Estate, an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of Lagos, the rich also cry.
Leafy and low density, the estate is the last place anyone would expect to find a weapon of mass destruction. But residents insist that death and destruction are borne by the air they breathe.
On Sundays, the air over the estate is clear. But on weekdays, when the heavy machines of Universal Steels Limited work, dark smoke billow into the sky, and loud sneezes become commonplace.
When our correspondent visited the estate, the fumes from Universal Steels assailed the nostrils with a pungent, choking smell that easily drew tears to the eyes. Residents say inhaling the fumes has become a part of their life. They breathe it, drink it and sleep it. The gases, just like air, will go anywhere the wind blows, seeping even through permanently shut windows.
“I did not open my windows for 15 years,” says Mr. Edmond Norman, who lived in the estate for a decade and a half. “I know it sounds almost unbelievable. It was almost impossible to breathe when we were outside. Two years ago, I made the decision to leave because living was almost becoming impossible.”
Fumes of death
Residents are quick to link the growing incidence of terminal illnesses, sudden deaths, birth defects and other health problems to the fumes bellowing from the factory.
Mr. and Mrs. Mark David have lived in the estate since 2000. In February 2011, Mrs. David fell ill. She was admitted to the Lagoon Hospital, Ikeja and diagnosed, first, for food poisoning. Later, her doctor added ulcer. Her condition grew worse. She experienced bloating, belching, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and fatigue.
The Davids then decided to seek medical treatment in the United Kingdom. Alas, it was cancer. Mark was distraught. But it was only the beginning.
“The London clinic diagnosed cancer on November 14, 2011; three days after tests were conducted, my wife started treatment for cancer with a £30,000 surgical operation to remove the gallbladder and one third of her liver on November 25, 2011 at the Hammersmith Hospital in London,” he says.
She returned to Nigeria for three weeks in December 2011. In January 2012, she returned to the UK and went for a fresh round of tests. This time, the diagnosis was grimmer.
He says, “Surprisingly, after those three weeks in the estate, another cancer which had not been there in November had emerged on her lymph nodes and pancreas, perhaps, as a result of the fumes in the estate.
“Chemotherapy, which cost £80,000, started in March 2012 and ended on August 15, 2012. She is still having treatment and has to have monthly blood tests using a trial drug which will, hopefully, extend (her life).”
Living a few houses away from the Marks is Mr. Mohammed Yusuf who has lived in the estate for 12 years. Yusuf, who is allergic to metals, says he takes medicine to protect himself from the fumes.
He says, “There was a time I would not be able to breathe properly once I got home (from the office). My driver would rush me to the doctor and I would feel better after taking some injections. But anytime I travel outside the country or leave my house, I am hale and hearty.
“I can’t take this pollution anymore. I am on steroids injection every four months to survive the metal fumes. I am allergic to metals and I am not getting younger. My doctor has told me that I cannot continue taking the steroids. So, I am leaving this place. It is my house, but I am leaving.”
Yusuf is lucky. Mrs. Tokunbo Sotayo, 46, a resident who died of asthma in October wasn’t. She moved, but a little too late.
“My sister was in good health before she started living in Adekunle Fajuyi. No one has asthma in our family; so, you can’t say it is hereditary,” Sotayo’s brother, Taiwo, says.
He adds, “She moved into this estate eight years ago and had her first asthma attack when she was almost 38. We were surprised when she developed it and it made us curious about what might have triggered it.
“Even when she left here, she never recovered from the asthma. She had a bad attack in October and died before she got to the hospital.”
Taiwo suspects that the fumes from Universal Steel caused his sister’s death. He says, “It was when we started to hear that other people in the estate were developing asthma as a result of the fumes that we suspected that the gases from the factory might have been responsible.”
Mark also lays the blame of his wife’s illness on the company. He claims that the metal gases from the steel factory caused his wife’s cancer.
He says, “The doctor said gall bladder cancer is rare in Nigeria and rare in many places. Obviously, we have suffered directly as a result of the lack of environmental management of the steel company’s fumes. Different experts we have spoken to told us that exposure to fumes from a steel company triggers this type of cancer. There was a particular household in the estate where three family members developed cancer. They have relocated abroad now.”
Are these residents merely crying wolf where none exists, or is there an established link between the diseases common in Adekunle Fajuyi Estate and the gases emitted by Universal Steels?
Prof. Albert Ebuehi of the Department of Biochemistry, University of Lagos, who is an expert in the effects of poisonous gases on human health, tells SUNDAY PUNCH that no one should live close to a steel company, especially one that releases its gases carelessly.
He says, “Some of the metals released by steel companies include iron, cadmium, chromium, lead, and zinc, among others. All of them in excess quantities can trigger all types of cancers. Cadmium in particular has been strongly linked to gall bladder cancer.
“Iron toxicity damages the heart, liver and elsewhere, which can cause significant adverse effects, including coma, metabolic acidosis, shock, liver failure, coagulopathy, respiratory distress syndrome, long-term organ damage and even death.”
The professor adds that the inhalation of cadmium-laden fumes can result in metal fume fever, chemicalpneumonitis, pulmonary oedema and death.
He says, “High-level exposure to lead can reduce fertility in males. It damages nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders.
“Chronic toxicity of zinc may produce gastric ulcer, pancreatitis, anaemia, nausea, vomiting and pulmonary fibrosis. Chromium salts are also the cause of allergic reactions in some people. Contact with products containing chromates can lead to dermatitis, resulting in the ulceration of the skin sometimes referred to as ‘chrome ulcers.’”
A consultant surgeon based in Lagos, Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie, agrees with Ebuehi. He says apart from cancer, lead, which is a heavy isotope, cannot be detoxified by the body.
“Lead causes progressive organ damage and this level of organ injury progresses more in the kidneys than other organs, such that progressive renal damage occurs eventually, leading to renal failure. Cadmium has been implicated in both cancer of the urinary bladder and stomach.
“Chromium is one of the most innocuous metal poisons known to man. It causes skin rashes, dermatitis, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, pyrexia of unknown origin and even convulsions. Zinc, at toxic levels, can cause muscle cramps, headaches, blurring of the vision, severe and often unexplained weakness and even convulsions.
“Iron, in excess amounts, 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 cirrhosis.”
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