Dirty fuels in vehicles put millions of Nigerians in danger

Millions of Nigerians are at the mercy of harmful emissions from vehicles as the country continues to import and produce fuel with high sulphur levels, FEMI ASU writes

More than half of Nigeria’s 182 million people are often exposed to vehicular emissions, but Stephen Nwanga is one of the major victims as he spends hours on the road daily in a bid to eke out a living.

The 26-year-old, who is in the final stage of his Ordinary National Diploma programme in Quantity Surveying at the Akanu Ibiam Polytechnic, Unwana, Ebonyi State, resorted to hawking some items, pending when he would secure a place to undergo the mandatory one-year internship.

Like many Nigerians who have to hawk on the road to make ends meet, Nwanga craves for traffic congestion because he sees it as a blessing. But it is, indeed, a poisoned chalice. While hawking on the road enables them to sell their goods faster, it also poses serious risks to their health.

On many roads in the country, especially in major cities such as Lagos and Port Harcourt, traffic jam is a daily occurrence and commuters, roadside traders, hawkers and traffic officers cannot but inhale the smog-forming emissions coming out of vehicles.

“It is not a thing of joy that we are on the road selling things in traffic because the smoke coming from the vehicles is poisonous to the body,” Nwanga told our correspondent on the Long Bridge of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.

“Due to the way things are hard in the country, we are in this condition. The smoke and the intensity of the sun are hazardous to our health,” he said.


After hours of hawking sliced pawpaw wrapped in transparent cellophane bags in traffic, Gift John decided to sit on the pavement of the Long Bridge, with her goods by her side, to eat some food.

“At times, you are passing and the vehicles will bring out smoke. At times, I do go with my handkerchief to cover my nose, while passing. Sometimes, while we are selling, a trailer will bring out a thick smoke, and we just have to bear it. Only God protects us,” said John, who is assisting her mum in selling fruits after finishing secondary school three years ago.

Describing the smoke as “very dangerous,” she said, “There are some people that will breathe in this smoke and will fall sick in two to three days. But for us, we are used to it. The traffic makes us sell faster and to go home on time than selling on the streets.

“At times, when a trailer brings out smoke, tears will come out of my eyes. But what do we have to do? We have to bear it.”

Passenger buses and heavy-duty vehicles such as fuel tankers, which the country relies heavily on for the transportation of petroleum products, are the major sources of emissions on Nigerian roads.

Another Nigerian who is highly exposed to vehicle emissions is Tunde Olowookere, a commercial motorcyclist, popularly known as an okada rider, who operates around Apapa, which is home to the country’s biggest and busiest seaport and known to be one of the worst traffic congested areas in Lagos.

Lagos, with over 20 million residents, is the biggest city in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy.

With many fuel depots located in Apapa, tankers move in daily to load petroleum products to be transported to different parts of the country.

“We wear nose cover because of the smoke from the tankers. I wear it every day because the smoke can affect one’s heart, just like when someone is smoking cigarettes,” Olowookere said.

He noted that he bought six nose masks for N100 and uses one per day, adding that he could have saved the money being spent on the masks if there was no smoke on the road.

High sulphur in fuel, major cause of emissions

Nigeria is among the top 13 nations with on-road diesel sulphur content above 50 parts per million, ranked by health burden of vehicle emissions, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition said in the recently adopted Global Strategy, the first global road map for moving the world to clean low sulphur fuel and advanced emissions standards within the next decade.

According to the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, the case for 100 ppm was made for 2015/2016 fuel specifications, but the levels were maintained at 3,000 ppm for diesel; 1,000 ppm for Premium Motor Spirit, and 1,000 ppm for Household Kerosene.

The Head of Energy Capital, Ecobank Capital, Mr. Dolapo Oni, said, “Nigeria buys fuels that have very high sulphur, unlike most other countries around the world that use 50 parts per million. Nigeria still consumes as high as 1,000 ppm and that is because those types of fuel are cheaper; that is why we can buy petrol at N145 per litre.

“Two, we have a lot of old cars on the road; and then, we are using very high sulphur fuels.”

The Chairman and Managing Director, Mobil Oil Nigeria, one of the biggest players in the country’s fuel market, Mr. Adetunji Oyebanji, said the dirty fuel was largely related to diesel, adding that high sulphur content makes it dirty.

“The more the sulphur content in the diesel, the more the emission from the vehicles, because in burning the diesel in the engine, it generates all the smoke that you see coming out,” he explained.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, emissions of greatest concern from petrol-fuelled vehicles are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and certain toxic hydrocarbons such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene.

Cars and trucks emit complex mixtures of air pollutants, with fine particulate matter having the greatest effect on human health, and most of them come from fuel combustion.

This year, the World Health Organisation listed four Nigerian cities among the worst in the world for air pollution, after it tracked the growth in the two different sizes of particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5 per cubic metre of air.

Onitsha, which was named the world’s most polluted city for air quality for high PM10, recorded 30 times more than the WHO’s recommended levels of PM10. Kaduna came fifth, followed by Aba in sixth place, and Umuahia in 16th position.

Last year, the World Bank reported that 94 per cent of Nigeria’s population was exposed to air pollution levels (measured in PM2.5) that exceed the WHO guidelines, compared to 72 per cent on average in Sub-Saharan Africa.

High rates of diseases and deaths

The WHO said approximately one in eight global deaths in 2012 were a result of air pollution exposure, making this the world’s single largest environmental health risk. It classified diesel exhaust, a significant contributor to the risk, as a Class 1 carcinogen known to cause cancer, on par with tobacco smoke and asbestos.

Nigeria and 12 other countries, including India, account for an estimated 70,000 annual premature deaths and 2.7 million barrels per day of annual on-road high-sulphur diesel fuel consumed, the CCAC said.

Life expectancy in the country, at 54.5 years, is one of the worst on the planet, according to the World Health Statistics 2016 report published by the WHO.

The Head of Radiotherapy and Oncology Department, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Prof. Remi Ajekigbe, said, “Smoking is bad. If you are a smoker, you are the active smoker. If you are not a smoker and you are so near a smoker, you are the passive smoker.

“But the smoke coming out of vehicles is even worse; it contains carbon monoxide and black carbon, which are very dangerous. They can cause cancer of the lungs and respiratory diseases.”

According to him, the risk from vehicle emissions is very high in the country, considering the number of vehicles on the roads.

PwC in its report entitled, ‘Africa’s Next Automotive Hub’ put the total number of cars in the country at 14.46 million.

“We should worry about the level of vehicle emissions in the country. We are polluting the air and we are breathing air in every second of the day. So, we are breathing in polluted air, and it is not good for us. For those who have asthma or other respiratory problems before, it can be worse,” Ajekigbe said.

A respiratory physician, Dr. Cajestan Onyedum, who described the lungs as the centre for oxygenation of the blood, said, “When they are compromised, it will become impossible for the human system to get enough oxygen into the body.”

He said the symptoms of inhaling vehicle emissions could range from coughing, difficulty with breathing, noisy breathing, chest tightness and chest pain.

The Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, said, “The level of vehicle emissions in the country is a serious cause for concern, because we have a whole lot of cars on our streets, and there has been no control of the level of emissions coming from them, and some of the cars are simply not road-worthy.

“It is toxic to human health as well as the climate generally. So, something should be done to check the level of emissions from the exhaust pipes of cars.”

According to the WHO, as urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them.

“Air pollution is a major cause of disease and death. When dirty air blankets our cities, the most vulnerable urban populations—the youngest, oldest and poorest—are the most impacted,” said the Assistant-Director General, Family, Women and Children’s Health, WHO, Dr. Flavia Bustreo.

Nigeria, others lag behind East African peers

Compared to other parts of the world, such as Europe and North America, fuel quality in many African countries, including Nigeria, is very poor.

European standards for fuel quality include Euro IV (50 ppm for petrol and diesel) and Euro V (10 ppm).

The African Refiners Association has developed the AFRI specifications as a guideline for the production of cleaner fuels, including AFRI III (300ppm for petrol and 500ppm for diesel), AFRI IV (150ppm for petrol and 50ppm for diesel). Africa aims to produce fuels with AFRI-4 specifications by 2020.

In January 2015, the East African sub-region (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) formally completed its transition to low-sulphur diesel fuels (maximum sulphur content of 50ppm in diesel) for cars, trucks and buses, according to the Global Strategy.

The process towards adoption of low-sulphur fuel standards began in 2005 following the successful elimination of leaded petrol in sub-Saharan Africa in December.

The CCAC said, “Much has been achieved already. Over the past decade, several low-and middle-income countries, including China, some South American nations, all East African countries, several East European countries, Thailand and several North African countries have completed a move to low-sulphur fuels of 50ppm or below.”

But Nigeria and others in the West African region continue to use very high sulphur fuels.

According to the Global Strategy, market study shows that Nigeria’s high diesel sulphur fuel standard (3,000ppm) impacts Benin, Mail, Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana, because the ships that bring in refined products for Nigeria also supply other importing countries.

In June 2016, a two-day workshop was held in Abuja aimed at promoting low sulphur fuels in Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States.

On December 1, 2016 in Abuja, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire agreed to ban the importation of Europe’s dirty fuels, limiting sulphur in fuels from 3000ppm to 50ppm.

UNEP, which made the announcement on December 5, said the move would dramatically reduce vehicle emissions and help more than 250 million people to breathe safer and cleaner air.

It noted that a report by Public Eye in September this year exposed how European trading companies were exploiting the weak regulatory standards in West African countries, allowing for the exportation of fuels with sulphur levels up to 300 times higher than was permitted in Europe.

Is the end of dirty fuel feasible by July 1, 2017?

The Minister of Environment, Mrs. Amina Mohammed, said this month that the Federal Government had decided that the sulphur in fuels imported into the country should be reduced from 3,000ppm to 50ppm, starting from July 1, 2017.

“Everybody knows that this is going to take some efforts, which is why we gave the six-month notice. What is more important is that we are working with the refineries on a long-term approach,” she said.

The Deputy Director, Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, Mr. Leo Atakpu, said, “We have been campaigning that the Federal Government should ban the importation of dirty fuel and we are glad that the Environment minister was able to work very closely with us and the ban will take effect from July 1, 2017.”

To make the ban come on stream and be effective, he stressed the need to ratchet up the campaign and keep the heat on the government.

Atakpu stated, “We need the presidential buy-in properly so that whether the minister leaves or not, the policy should be enforced. So, we need to continue to galvanise forces around this issue to keep the heat on the government to ensure that this ban is implemented.

“I am surprised that the National Assembly doesn’t seem quite aware of what is happening; they are not too disposed to joining the force. They should be part of the campaign to stop it.”

Oyebanji said the lower the sulphur content in diesel, the higher the cost “because to clean the diesel and make it have less sulphur, the processes are more complex.”

“Anything that improves the environment is a good thing. But some people will say, ‘I prefer that fuel is cheap.’ Meanwhile, we are all killing the planet together. So, it is a threat. The fact of the matter is that if you burn diesel that has less sulphur, the emissions into the atmosphere will be reduced, which is of benefit to the whole of mankind,” he said.

According to the Global Strategy, governments are often reluctant to impose higher fuel quality standards, because of the costs that will be imposed on the local refining sector, or, in the case of import-dependent markets, passed through directly to taxpayers or fuel consumers.

Bassey believes that if the Nigerian government is serious and has controls in place, those who export dirty fuel into the country will also stop doing it.

The Ecobank analyst, Oni, expressed doubt about the feasibility of the July 1, 2017 deadline, stressing the need for a partnership between the ministries of environment and petroleum resources.

“Right now, it looks like the initiative is being driven solely by the Environment ministry. I think it will take some time for it to work,” he said.

The Special Technical Adviser on Upstream and Gas to the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Mr. Gbite Adeniji, told our correspondent, “We will back anything that helps improve our environment and that helps protect the lives and property of our citizens.”

CNG as superior alternative to petrol, diesel

Compressed Natural Gas, which is a superior alternative fuel to petrol and diesel as it burns cleaner, is increasingly becoming a favoured mode of fuel for vehicles globally.

Twenty-eight years after the development of CNG as a vehicular fuel was first proposed by the Nigerian Gas Company Limited, little progress has been made in converting vehicles to use gas.

Despite the nation’s vast natural gas resources, less than 5,000 vehicles have been converted to use CNG in the country, with majority of the users in Benin, Edo State.

Nigeria has proven gas reserves of well over 180 trillion cubic feet, making it the world’s ninth largest gas reserve base, estimated to last over 100 years at the current exploitation level.

The Managing Director, NGC, Mr. Babatunde Bakare, in a presentation at a recent workshop, said there was an urgent need for a deliberate policy by the government, as piloted by Federal Ministry of Environment, and other stakeholders to support the growth of CNG as an alternative fuel in Nigeria and the ECOWAS sub-region.

“The NGC is willing and ready to collaborate and synergise with the Federal Ministry of Environment and other stakeholders to reduce vehicular emissions through the introduction of 50ppm sulphur fuels before or by the year 2020,” he said.

According to the draft National Gas Policy released in November by the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources, vehicles using CNG or autogas may be appropriate for some large Nigerian cities such as Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Kano and Kaduna, or where there are large vehicle fleets such as large corporate fleets or buses and/or taxis in large urban areas.

“Natural gas vehicles really take off when there is a determined government push behind the initiative. When there is a push that generates a demand, then the markets starts to provide the NGV filling stations,” it stated.

The draft policy document stated that the NGVs took off in London when the Mayor announced that taxis that were not converted to at least dual fuel would not have their licences renewed.

“The NGVs also have a wide use in the West African region outside Nigeria, specifically in Ghana. The government intends to support the CNG penetration by encouraging private sector investment and operations,” the draft policy added.

Addressing the vehicle pollution crisis

In Nigeria, particularly in major cities such as Lagos, the population is growing rapidly, traffic is increasing, and vehicle emissions are not regulated.

“For 20 years, Nigeria has not been able to address the vehicle pollution crisis due to the poor fuels we have been importing,” Mohammed was quoted as saying by UNEP.

The Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, a global public-private partnership to promote cleaner fuels and vehicles, began its work in 2002 with the promotion of unleaded fuels. Since 2009, the PCFV has helped 25 countries, whose populations total 1.7 billion people, to implement low sulphur fuel standards (50ppm or below).

Last year, the World Bank said it had already taken the first step in curbing pollution in the country by supporting a rapid bus system in Lagos that is taking cars off the road and helping to make transportation more efficient, adding that more must be done to bring about cleaner fuels and safe waste disposal.

“In developed countries, a lot of people are moving away from petrol or diesel engines and gradually shifting to use electric cars. For Nigeria and other African countries, it is time to begin to plan to move away from polluting fuel for our vehicles and planning for a shift towards cleaner cars,” Bassey said.

The Global Strategy calls on all countries, which have not yet done so, to introduce action plans for the immediate introduction of low sulphur diesel fuels of 50ppm or less by 2025, with 10ppm as the final target by 2030, and for the introduction of Euro IV or equivalent vehicle emissions standards, with Euro VI standards or equivalent as the final target.

The implementation of the Global Strategy is expected to prevent an estimated 100,000 premature deaths per year by 2030 globally, increasing to 500,000 premature deaths per year by 2050.

The net present value of the health gains to 2050 in terms of avoided mortalities is estimated at $18tn, providing $16 in benefits for each dollar invested in cleaner diesel fuels and engines.

The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, described low sulphur fuels as critical to lowering direct emissions of ultra-fine soot particles from on-road traffic, leading to adverse health impacts and contributions as climate pollutants.

He noted that developed countries had reduced fuel sulphur levels to 50ppm or 10ppm, while developing nations have sulphur levels (especially in diesel) that may even reach 10,000ppm.

“The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has been collaborating with ARA to effect the AFRI specs in its refineries via two main programmes, rehabilitation of existing refineries (including modifications) and co-location of offshore refineries to expand refining capacity,” Kachikwu said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *