Written By Kwame Asiedu - According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “reducing the public health impacts of outdoor air pollution requires addressing the main sources of outdoor pollution, including inefficient fossil fuel combustion from motor vehicle transport, power generation and improving energy efficiency in buildings and manufacturing.” In the last week, a report by Swiss NGO Public Eye indicated that, businesses in Europe are exporting highly polluting, high-sulphur diesel to the African market that could never be sold at pumps in their home countries, exploiting weak fuel standards there.
Having taken a critical look at the said report, I came to the conclusion that, in essence neither the exporting companies, nor the local importers were breaking any laws. They were only exploiting our local ineptitude and failure to care for our own lives. Public health in many jurisdictions is a joint effort between medics, parastatals and independent regulatory authorities who are tasked with setting standards and policing same. That we have very lucid standards locally is an indictment on these regulatory institutions. Increasingly, it is becoming obvious that those we entrust our destiny to, are often not interested in our welfare or obtuse to the task we place on their shoulders. On the other hand, businesses with no ethical considerations are exploiting this lack of leadership and foresight, enriching themselves in the process whilst increasing the public health burden of the people.
Listening to the stakeholders in the diesel importation and distribution business on various radio stations even made me cringe. The laissez-faire manner in which they answered questions was a clear indication that, they either were not aware of the health impact of dirty fuel or they were more interested in their profits than the harm their actions caused. Sadly, the view of the CEO of the National Petroleum Authority Moses Asaga was also dismissive. In his opinion, the onus of obtaining clean fuel, rested with the populace; as the only answer was for us to pay more. By the end of his interview, the only question that came to mind was; what have we done to deserve such supine leadership behaviour? In the end, I came to the conclusion that, the way forward was to intensify public education as a means of empowering the masses.
Burning fossil fuels high in sulphur produces a by-product sulphur dioxide. About 99% of the sulphur dioxide in the air comes from human sources. Sulphur dioxide is a gas. It is invisible and has a nasty, sharp smell. It reacts easily with other substances to form harmful compounds, such as sulphuric acid, sulphurous acid and sulphate particles. All of which when inhaled can cause corrosion in the tissues of the lungs leading to a number of respiratory ailments. It irritates the nose, throat, and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest. The effects of sulfur dioxide are felt very quickly and most people would feel the worst symptoms in 10 or 15 minutes after breathing it in. Those most at risk of developing problems if exposed to sulphur dioxide are people with asthma or similar conditions. If you have ever had an instant headache on a trotro with obnoxious exhaust fumes or immediately after overtaking a smoking lorry on the highway, you now know the reason.
Often short term exposure can be reversed but in the long term, irreversible damage can be done to the epithelium of the respiratory system leading to chronic conditions like pulmonary emphysema, chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD) or ultimately respiratory collapse. What really irks me is that those who are party to this are not exempt from the risks anyway. Unfortunately, the atmosphere has no physical boundaries making inhalational pollutants a threat to all.
Sad to say, many working in lowly paid jobs in the petroleum industry like fuel attendants, diesel tanker drivers etc. may have these symptoms on a regular basis without even knowing the underlying cause. Even worse off are the workers and inhabitants of areas plagued by illegal mining (galamsey). Many of the machinery used are second hand and of low efficiency, running on high sulphur diesel fuel with poor combustion. The result of this is that apart from the fumes they are immediately exposed to, they inhale dust from the mines and pollute the water bodies with their trade. In the end these societies are burdened with a multitude of health problems that cannot be compensated for by the activities they assume are earning them a living.
To think that in 1999, the average sulfur content of diesel in Australia was 1300 parts per million (ppm), reducing to 500 ppm in 2002, further dropping to 50 ppm by 2009 with premium diesel containing only 10ppm; it is sacrilegious for our country to permit the importation of fuel with sulfur content of between 2,200 and 3000ppm. This is what the likes of Senyo Hosi want us to believe is nothing to worry about and laugh off.
For me I don’t blame people who directly benefit for their views on the public health impact of their actions. I however seek to remind us all that playing Russian roulette with one’s health is not just irresponsible but a reflection of a society that has suffered a catastrophic loss of values with policy makers who have chosen to turn a blind eye. Not long ago we were all living testaments to the Volkswagen emissions scandal where the car maker was found to have installed "defeat devices" - software that allows cars to cheat in emissions tests, making them appear cleaner than they actually are. The impact of this on public health worldwide lead to the recall of millions of automobiles and eventually affected many other car makers with huge penalty payments in countries where regulation doesn’t even allow sulphur content of above 50ppm. Can one imagine the pollution these vehicles would be causing with fuel containing 3000ppm of sulphur?
Surely institutions like the Ghana Standards Board and Environmental Protection Agency ought to know of the advances being made worldwide in decreasing sulphur content of diesel fuel. If so how come, they have looked on for such a scandal to go on without butting an eyelid? Does it always have to take a foreign entity to expose or disrespect and rancor for our own lives? The thought that the answer to every question of human endeavor locally boils down to money and ability to pay, defeats the investment made national and personally in the training of technocrats. Truth is the ex-pump price of diesel is lower in many of the countries with low sulphur content than it is in Ghana. The line that money is the main driver of this public health debacle is an attempt to play on our intelligence. The true reason for this is lack of joined up thinking and a crux lack of leadership will to protect our environment.