By Cosmas Omegoh
If records were kept, many would be shocked to learn that hundreds of Nigerians have died unreported from fumes emitting from their power-generating sets, and even cars.
Some of those accidents occur either when the victims place their generators inside their homes or somewhere much closer to their living rooms and went to bed or when they outrightly brought their generators into the house soon after they were powered off. When they do this, just before dawn, the unexpected will happen – the whole family had perished, killed by a certain deadly gas that emits from a generator during or soon after use. Now, sadly, the victims are no longer here to tell their stories.
It was learnt that sometimes, when tragedies associated with generator fumes occur in some areas, some people ascribe them to witchcraft. However, the informed ones are raising awareness that such disasters are by-products of ignorance.
Just like the good book says, “people perish for lack of knowledge.” And from this, German-born physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner, Albert Einstein, probably drew copiously when he declared: “Better be unborn than untaught, for ignorance is the root of misfortune,” adding that: “Ignorance is an enemy, even to its owner…. Ignorance hates knowledge because it (the latter) is too pure.”
If ignorance is not deadly, how else would anyone explain how people would purchase a generator to enhance their lives and ironically allow it to kill them? People go to bed healthy, but never wake up to see the next day. They simply die in their sleep, leaving neigbours to figure out what transpired during the long night.
And when this happens, speculations oftentimes fly around, suggesting that the victim was killed by witches/wizards or by a certain diabolical means.
“A week after I moved into Ota in Ogun State, sometime ago,” recalls Dr Abolanle Kayode, a scientist and an expert in Biochemistry, “ a man and his entire family members were killed by generator fume the very night they moved into the new house the man had just built.
“It was one tragedy too many. Then tongues began to wag. All manners of conspiracy theories were thrown up: ‘oh his hands were not clean; oh, some witches might have been after their lives; oh it must have been food poisoning.
“But it was later discovered that the family placed their generator at the corridor perhaps soon after powering it off, shut some windows and went to bed. At dawn, everyone of them was dead.
“They inhaled carbon monoxide emitting from their generator and died.
“Some people said perhaps their enemies didn’t want them to live in their new house, but I said ignorance was culpable.
“If it was the food poisoning, the autopsy report would have revealed that.
“The man simply placed his generator at a point where carbon monoxide leaked into the rooms where they slept and they all breathed it and died,” he insisted.
Just some weeks ago, in a Delta State community, for instance, four people were reportedly killed inside a ground water-storage tank they had gone to wash.
According to a source, they had taken a mini-generator to the floor of the tank to enable them perform a task. Midway, four of men fainted and died inside the facility. Only one of them was spirited out unconscious.
But it is not only fume from power-generating set that kills, fume from vehicle silencers also kills.
According to Dr Abolanle: “Often, people make this mistake when they are driving on the highway – a long distance – and the silencer of their car pulls off.
“They pick it up, take it into the car, wind up the window glasses, turn on their air conditioner and zoom off. That is dangerous.
“Now, the remnant of the carbon monoxide in the exhaust pipe can fill the whole car and can cause suffocation or even temporary paralysis to the occupants.”
Dr Abolanle, a lecturer at Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, in Ogun State, explained that the “major substance in the generator fume is carbon monoxide.”
It was learnt that carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas emitting from poorly-maintained cars, or machines. It remains active a little longer after the machine has been powered off. And once the gas is inhaled in some quantity, it simply kills without mercy.
Dr. Anthony Usiofefe Ereyimwen of St Mathias Anglican Hospital, Benin City, also said that carbon monoxide is “the silent-killer gas,” which could also be deployed in biological warfare because of its killer instinct.
Dr Abolanle maintained that even when carbon monoxide is poisonous, once it is present in the body, the hemoglobin tolerates it much more than oxygen.
He said that “in the body, oxygen is transported by the hemoglobin. As we breathe in, oxygen attaches to the hemoglobin; it is the hemoglobin that will transfer the oxygen to all the body cells that keep us alive.
“When there is little oxygen and large quantity of carbon monoxide in the body, the hemoglobin will prefer to attach itself to the carbon monoxide instead of oxygen and continues to carry it all over the body even when it is poisonous to the system.
“Sadly, carbon monoxide once present in the body, blocks oxygen flow from reaching the vital human organs. This easily results into death.”
Weighing in on this development, Prof Stan Udedi of Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, Anambra State, told Sunday Sun that “Carbon 2 oxide also called carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the blood’s hemoglobin. Oxygen rides the hemoglobin to reach vital parts of the body.
“But carbon monoxide is denser, so it easily displaces oxygen once its presence is dominant; it blocks oxygen’s binding site at the hemoglobin once it is inhaled in larger quantity. It goes on to frustrate the hemoglobin from transporting oxygen; at that point, the hemoglobin gets trapped and eventually gets damaged. This leads to suffocation because no oxygen is allowed to reach the brain. Death then follows,” he said.
Adding another twist to the picture, he revealed that chances are that some percentage of people who die as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation were under the influence of alcohol before the disaster struck.
“Most likely, when some people die of carbon monoxide inhalation – if you check their alcohol blood level, you will find out that it is higher than normal.
“Sometimes when you see such disaster happening, especially at night, it is either the victims celebrated a day before or kept late night enjoying themselves. If their bodies are taken for autopsy, it often shows that the alcohol level in their bodies is very high.
“Any person who is healthy and sleeping normally, once they are breathing in gases and suffocating, they will wake up. Therefore, when people are drunk, they should not allow any powered generator around them.”
He said that once drunk, a victim will most likely be sleeping like a baby, recalling that children can also die in such circumstance because “a child cannot be conscious of what is happening in their environment while asleep. That is why we say someone is ‘sleeping like a baby.’ But an adult can easily wake up once or twice in the night to perform some activities.”
Prof Ededi who is the Dean of Faculty of Natural Sciences also affirmed that even fume from a car can be dangerous.
He said: “If one has a car park that is linked to the living rooms and kids are sleeping there, the carbon monoxide emitting from the car exhaust pipe is capable of doing grave damage especially when the car is left to steam for long. The carbon monoxide might simply leak into the room when kids or babies are sleeping. This might be deadly especially if the room is poorly ventilated.”
On his part, Dr Ereyimwen tells our reporter that “when fume is released from a generator, it comes out as carbon. Hot and gaseous, it reacts with oxygen to form carbon monoxide.
“Sadly, if oxygen is inhaled into the lungs, with carbon monoxide, the body will absorb carbon monoxide 20 times faster than it would absorb oxygen. So, the human system has higher affinity, that is in greater love for carbon monoxide than oxygen.
“Now, to worsen everything, if carbon monoxide is dominant in an enclosure, it limits the presence of oxygen and reduces its availability for biological activities.
“At that point, more carbon monoxide will be inhaled into the lungs; it will now react with hemoglobin to produce a poisonous gas. With the presence of this gas in the body, a chain is created which leads to complications. The result is that the brain will be denied oxygen; recall that the brain cannot survive without oxygen for five seconds. So, if the brain dies off, all other organs will follow.”
He maintained that this process kills people more because “the challenge is that it happens when the victim is asleep. If it happens when the victim is consciously alert, the first sign is that they begin to fell dizzy, drowsy, headache and collapse if they don’t come out from the same environment.”
And now, the greater danger he said is that “when one is asleep, he won’t know that he is lacking oxygen. He gradually falls into sleep, falls into deeper sleep, falls into coma and dies off. The victim will not even have the chance to recover.”
Why generator fume death is rampant
Nigeria is going through interminable power crisis. People are in desperate need for electricity to run their homes and businesses; they need power simply to survive, yet they can get fair supply. Everyone makes provision for their own supply. They buy power-generating sets – the ones they can afford – some proportionate to their ability. If they have space constraint, they place their prized generators near to the living areas and even allow them to run through the night. Some of them that are poorly maintained are said to be dangerous. Even when they are turned them off, they are deadly. Once they are hauled straight into the building, disaster beckons. So, some people prefer to hide their generators closer to their windows or doors prevent them being stolen by marauders, while remaining oblivious of the danger in sight. Now, sadly, when disaster strikes, the victims die in their sleep, never to wake up to see a new day.
Most dangerous generators
The worst of all the deadly generators according to Prof Udebi, are the smaller ones especially usually placed close to the living rooms.
“The ones that kill easily are not working properly; they have incomplete combustion. When a generator is working properly and discharging ordinary smoke, the carbon monoxide level in it is very poor because there is complete combustion. Check out the smoke, it is naturally grayish. When there is complete combustion, what every engine releases is carbon dioxide.
“But when the rings begin to grow weak, its smoke will be dark with lots of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is much more poisonous than carbon dioxide.”
Help for carbon monoxide victim
Dr Abolanle advised that “you could deliver someone from carbon monoxide accident as easy as removing him from where he is and putting him in an open place where he can receive fresh air.
“Just remove the victim’s clothing and let him get enough fresh air before medics arrive. Once he receives fresh air, the victim’s cells come alive again, for he has been starved of oxygen.
“Once that is done, he gets revived pending when he gets medical help.
“The situation might be dangerous if it happens in the night.”
Equally, Dr Eryimwen admonished that if you encounter a carbon monoxide victim, first, “try to find out whether his airwave is open – the nostrils, the mouth. Try and see if he is still breathing. Try and feel his purse. Put your hand at just six centimeters under his ear, under the neck and see if the major artery there is beating or not; then, place your ear on the left hand side of his lower heart region – just a little bellow his breast nipple to know whether he is alive or not.
“Upon getting the tinniest clue that he is alive, quickly remove him to an open space where atmospheric air is much more available.
“Then you can now deliver oxygen to him by breathing into this mouth. If his purse is not there, you have to compress his heart. At the end of every 15th round, breathe into his mouth. Once that is done, the person is likely to recover, depending on how far he has gone.
“In other instance, oxygen in cylinder can be administered as fast as possible before other organs deteriorate.”
How to avoid carbon monoxide inhalation death
According to Prof Udedi, it is not advisable in any way to bring in a powered generator into the home or allow its exhaust pipe to leak smoke into the home. Ordinarily, “fume from a perfectly-working generator does not kill anyone as long as the exhaust pipe is not directed toward the living room.
“The carbon monoxide so generated will never be much because combustion is normal and complete.
“But unfortunately, such accidents happen more in poor homes. Often, servicing their generators is a big deal. The plugs might be bad, the rings not doing well. The generator keeps emitting dark smoke and particles that find their way into the house.”
He cautioned that “generators should be positioned in such a way that the smoke they emit go into the atmosphere.
“You have to turn off your generator when going to sleep. That is most ideal.
“Big generators are always kept far away from the home, but the smaller ones are very close to the house because of the terminal where they are kept.”
Dr Abolanle is unhappy that in some crowded areas, with several households using generators, the atmosphere is always polluted with carbon monoxide, warning that such areas are potentially dangerous.
“In this part of the world, we often see a small building of four flats, each one using a generator, and you have the fumes hovering all around the building. That is disaster in the waiting. It can kill within six to ten hours.”
He emphasised that the best way to mitigate such disaster is to keep all the generators isolated.
“People should not place their generators either at the corridors, kitchens or near their windows. They ought to be at an isolated point where the carbon monoxide so emitted can easily diffuse into the atmosphere.
“If a generator is placed close to the living room, as the breeze blows, carbon monoxide wafts into the rooms. That is dangerous.”
Citing industrial generators, he advised that their exhaust pipe should be tilted skywards.
However, he said even at that “it is still dangerous because some quantity of carbon monoxide is still being deposited in the systems of people working in the area. This might lead to toxicity and in future cause organs – kidney, liver damage.
“People who work in such environment could suffer kidney failure, liver disease, liver damage with time.
“Those who work in such industrial environment are exposed to what he calls ‘occupational risk.’
“As they breathe in carbon monoxide each day, it is like taking little poison at a time. Over the years, that could accumulate and cause them vital organ damage.”
Then Prof Udedi goes on to discourage returning a generator into the home once it is turned off, declaring that the practice is simply deadly and must be avoided at all costs.
He said: “As long as the exhaust of the generator is still hot, combustion is going on.
“It is reacting with oxygen; it is either the generator is producing carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. Even when the generator is powered off, the oxygen level around it is low. It keeps emitting carbon monoxide.”
To avoid being harmed he leaves this simple clue: “The moment you can hold the exhaust of the generator with your two hands and not hurt, then your generator is safe. That is a simple practical test. There is no need to tell you that it has to be left outside for 30 to 40 minutes for the exhaust to completely cool down.
“The moment you can hold and maintain your hand on the generator exhaust and it doesn’t hurt you, you are safe.”