By Olakunle Olafioye
The long stretch of traffic along the ever busy Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway comes with huge prospect for Chukwunonso, a road side hawker. A few of his colleagues had been arrested on a few occasions by the Lagos State Environmental Task Force for violating the law banning street hawking in the state but the lure of the cool money he makes under the harsh condition of conducting his business on daily basis is a huge motivation for the Abia state indigene. Nonso told Sunday Sun correspondent that he makes an average of N2500.00 gains from his daily toil along the road.
Nonso was however totally ignorant of the huge price that comes with the money he makes from hawking in the traffic. Although he conceded that his daily engagement was dangerous, not only because of its hectic and tiring nature but also because of the risk of getting knocked down by vehicles, for Nonso the hazardous fume he inhales on regular basis from traffic pales into insignificance compared to other more visible dangers in the traffic, including risk of getting apprehended by state task force.
Adeola Emmanuel (name changed), an officer of the Lagos State Transport Maintenance Agency, LASTMA is better informed on the danger of inhaling traffic fumes. He told Sunday Sun that men and officers of the agency have shared knowledge about the hazardous nature of vehicular fumes they inhale while carrying out the duty, adding that the best they can do is to cover their noses with a nose mask while on duty. In addition to being advised to always use nose masks, Adeola said operatives of the agency are paid N5,000.00 monthly stipend as hazard allowance.
Findings by Sunday Sun showed that other agencies including the police and the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC also sensitize their officers regularly on the need to take precautionary measures needed to reduce their exposure to traffic fumes.
Traffic fumes, which is the emission of carbon monoxide from vehicles has damaging effects on the body system according Dr Thomas Evwierhoma, a lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Lagos.
“When human beings come in contact with the hazardous gas it goes into the lungs, which is interface between the oxygen in the atmosphere and the red blood cells. The oxygen in the atmosphere comes in contact with the lungs and goes down to the red blood cells in the body through which it is circulated to other parts of the body. But if there is carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, it will find its way down into the lung and reduces the molecules of oxygen the lungs are able to track from the air such that the red blood cells will be suffocated sort of, because the red blood cells won’t have enough oxygen any more.
“The carbon monoxide will now take a large part of the lungs and leave little space for the oxygen. What happens next is that the person will pass out because there won’t be enough oxygen needed by the body to function optimally. In a situation where the victim is not rescued on time and taken away from the polluted area, he or she is bound to die,” Evwierhoma said.
Besides Adeola and other operatives of government agencies whose duty it is to ensure free flow of traffics along major roads, thousands of other Nigerians are equally at the risk of the danger posed by prolonged exposure to the toxic gaseous emission from vehicles on major roads in the country. Road hawkers, people living close to major roads, motorists as well as passengers, who are often held up in traffic jams are also at risk.
But as dangerous as traffic fume is to human health, Dr Evwierhoma said the impact of the dangerous gas may not produce immediate effects on traffic workers and others who come in contact with it along major busy roads because the amount of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere is low. “The level of carbon monoxide inhaled by those working in traffic is low; the concentration is not the same all the time. It is different from someone being locked in this room and there is plenty of carbon monoxide because in the case of traffic wardens you have enough amount of air blowing that is why majority of them don’t feel the negative impact of the fumes immediately. But it definitely has a long term effect on them,”
Notwithstanding Dr Evwierhoma’s position, there is mounting evidence of the health dangers of traffic fumes on people who get exposed to it on daily basis. Dr. David Akinpelu, Medical Director, New Merit Hospital, Lagos said more and more Nigerians are coming up with asthma as a result of their exposure to carbon monoxide while many who are on the borderline of developing asthma, have their conditions aggravated.
“These fumes are very injurious to human health. For those who are asthmatic or those on the borderline of developing asthma, it can aggravate it. When an asthmatic patient inhales the fume it triggers an attack. Many people have died on the road as a result of their exposure to dangerous emission from vehicles. I know a Professor of Medicine that died on the road as a result of this. He was asthmatic and was driving on the road when he inhaled the fume emitted by a vehicle moving ahead of him,” he said.
Asthma is just one of the many health conditions that could be triggered or aggravated by one’s exposure to vehicular fumes. In agreement with Dr Evwierhoma’s submission on how carbon monoxide interferes with the body system, Dr Akinpelu said exposure to vehicular fumes has harmful effect on the blood and exposes the victim to serious health challenges including pneumonia, bronchitis and other chronic lung diseases.
“Inhaling fumes can even pollute the blood and make the blood to become toxic if you inhale it so much. And anything that is capable of poisoning the blood can trigger any medical conditions. If one inhales too much of carbon monoxide, the person can die immediately. If one does not die immediately, the fume poisons the blood and will continue to wreck silent and gradual havoc on the body system. The fume will change the blood components and weakens the body system. As such, your defensive mechanism is weakened and can no longer be able to fight most of the stubborn diseases that your body is naturally programmed to fight,” Dr. Akinpelu explained.
Prolonged exposure to vehicular fumes, according to a recent research by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, is capable of raising the risk of developing stroke and dementia in the long run. The research claims that living near congested roads with high levels of air pollution can cause ‘silent strokes’ which increase the risk of dementia in the long run.
The study, which involved more than 900 people aged 60 and over who did not have dementia or a history of strokes, maintains that “exposure to small, sooty particles, mostly caused by traffic fumes and factory emissions, alters the structure of the brain.
The microscopic particles have previously been shown to cause lung damage and harmful changes in blood vessels and clotting, and are thought to contribute to the deaths of 29,000 people every year in Britain.
Although there are no available records on the devastating impact of carbon monoxide on Nigerians, experts are unanimous in their opinions that Nigeria may have more disturbing figure of carbon monoxide-related deaths than what are obtainable in Britain and other developed nations.
To mitigate the effect of vehicular emission on traffic wardens and other road users, Dr Evwierhoma wants the government to take its stance on the roadworthiness of automobiles that find their way into the country more seriously. “We will only be able to tackle the danger posed by the emission of carbon monoxide on our roads if we are determined to take more serious stance to ensure that vehicles that ply our roads are roadworthy,” he surmised.
Dr. Akinpelu on the other hand wants the government to make provision for improved insurance cover for its personnel working in the traffic considering the obvious lack of commitment on the part of the government to tackle the issue vehicular fumes headlong. “It will be very difficult for me to proffer a holistic solution to the problem. I often see some of these traffic wardens putting on nose masks; how long can they do that? Giving the prevailing permissive condition in the country, where vehicles that are not road worthy still find their way into the country unhindered, the only thing government can do to those working in traffic is to give them better health insurance cover. Also the government must make adequate provisions for their families in case of any unwholesome development.
An occupational and environmental health practitioner, Dr. Femi Omonayin, enjoined those working in the traffic and other road users to avail themselves with the right information on how they can be better secured from the harmful effect of carbon monoxide.
“Carbon monoxide has a long term health effect on people. There is what we call worker’s exposure limit. For traffic wardens and other traffic agents there is a need for them to know the level of exposure their bodies are capable of accommodating at a given period, if they go beyond that limit they are likely feel the immediate impact of their exposure. Health promotion is very essential, they need to be sensitized on the dangers of getting exposed to carbon monoxide in order to be able to take necessary precautions,” he concluded.