Unlike most of the West, petroleum refined for automobiles is still laden with lead. The team of Nigerian scientists Obioh, Oluwolu and Akeredolu et al, in their thorough study of Lead Poisoning in Children in Nigeria, provides remarkable evidence of the far reaching effect, albeit indirect, of the Oil industry on the health of Nigerian children. In their randomized sample of children between the ages of 1-6, they found the average blood lead level to be 106 micrograms/liter, and 2% of the children had a blood level greater than 300 micrograms/liter. The five-year-old Nigerian children in their studies were found to have the most elevated serum lead levels. For comparison, the acceptable upper limit of normal for the United States is debatable, but ranges from 10-15 micrograms/dl.

Other authors of similar studies came to parallel conclusions, and ascribe this finding to long term exposure to environmental pollution during playtime outside. They report the total amount of atmospheric lead emissions to be about 3000 metric tons a year. The main culprits for this problem were found to be the use of leaded gasoline in cars and combustion from the oil industry.

There is suggestive information about the role of lead in hypertension. However, links to kidney disease and neurological damage -blindness, brain damage, seizure disorders – have been firmly established. Convenience sample surveys of individuals living in this part of Nigeria, suggest that these disorders could be a major problem amongst Delta inhabitants, though careful studies are needed to confirm this.

Arsenic, widely distributed throughout the earth’s crust, is introduced into groundwater from erosion and dissolution of arsenic-containing mineral ores. In addition, the combustion of fossil fuels is a significant source of arsenic in the environment. Arsenic has been found in the wells dug for drinking water in the River Niger Delta and long term exposure has been linked to a variety of illnesses including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infertility, cancers of the skin, lungs, urinary bladder and kidney.

Toxins such as phenol cyanide and sulfide-suspended solids are also found in large concentrations in the River Niger Delta. Cyanide is a particular problem, because cassava – a primary food source in this region – contains cyanide at its early stages of its growth (to ward off insects). People have evolved in association with this staple crop and have thus survived in the presence of substantial high serum levels of cyanide. But Shell’s oil pollution, particularly through leaks and spills, has led to the bioconcentration of this toxin in animals, fish and plants ingested by humans. These added, overwhelms the innate evolutionary serum cyanide counteracting mechanisms, leading to elevated serum levels, rendering the region’s residents more vulnerable to cyanide-related disease. Cyanide’s effects on the neurological system (disabling neuropathies), the thyroid gland and the respiratory system are well documented.

Florence Obani-Nwibari et al. impart this information about the health of Ogoni (a major ethnic group in the River Niger Delta) women and children:

“The physical health of the people, particularly the women, has deteriorated. Exposure to gas flares and contaminated water has caused health problems. Ogoni people eat fish from poisoned streams. Most do not have the resources to pay for health care and medicine. Even for those who do, there is not a single fully equipped government hospital in Ogoni land. Women frequently die at childbirth or give birth to premature babies. The lack of diagnostic medical laboratories in Ogoni prohibits us from knowing the extent of the health problems caused by oil pollution… .”

For thousands of years, human settlements in the Niger Delta, endowed with discipline and respect for its surroundings, existed in symbiosis with one of the largest, efficient and productive equatorial ecological systems in West Africa. It is now evident to many observers that driven by greed and profit, four decades of multinational oil exploitation in this region has resulted in one of the worst environmental offenses in history.

Shell and other multinational oil corporations would be wise to heed their own funded reports that encourage them to clean up the Niger Delta; or should be forced through all possible legal channels to do so. Programs to provide social and health care services must be complemented by cleaning up the vast Delta Region of Nigeria. Only extensive ecological reconstruction of this once extremely productive area can possibly redress and reverse the destruction of the environment and the dispossession, destitution and denigration of local populations. With the enormous profits gained from the region over the past four decades, oil industries can easily afford to do this. As a major producer of oil for combustion and flared gas that directly emits greenhouse gases, it is in the interest of the world community to clean the Niger Delta and dramatically the extractive practices. Reducing demand for oil through greater efficiency is the part other nations can play.

“Nigerians are corrupt because the system they live under today makes corruption easy and profitable. They will cease to be corrupt when corruption is made difficult and inconvenient”

It is clear that strong leadership is central to the solution of corruption and other social pathologies in Nigeria. Skyrocketing subornment has been kept alive by a history of easy and unrestricted access to large amounts of petrodollars by government officials, without accountability. Individuals who have clearly looted the national treasury have borne no cost, setting the stage for a legacy of ‘kleptocracy.’

There has been a great deal of ‘nice sounding government rhetoric’ about fighting corruption. Access to the nation’s wealth, i.e. petrodollars that fuel the corruption, must first be controlled and restricted. The current democratic dispensation provides a novel chance for Nigeria to cultivate a culture of accountability, openness and transparency in government, as well as in the oil sector. Developing a system of checks and balances that makes “corruption inconvenient” – enforcing jail terms for the guilty; mandating unannounced auditing by non-government firms with impeccable reputations; making government earnings public; publishing oil corporation account portfolios – costs, expenditures, salaries, budgets, etc. – can have a profound effect in redirecting Nigeria’s downward course and weakening state. The ripple effects of such a transformation would be felt in a myriad of areas. Most profoundly, it would set the stage, at last, for a generation of leaders who adopt public service to “serve the nation, and not to get rich”.

Nigeria depends on oil for 90-95% of export revenues, and over 90% of foreign exchange earnings. A similar story can be told of several other African oil producers. As a finite source of energy, fiscal dependence on the sale of fossil fuels is beset with future financial instability and does not provide the basis for sound economic planning. At some point, the Hubbert curve for world oil will enter the down slope. Extraction will become more expensive and, eventually, this fossil fuel – essential for transport throughout the globe – will disappear. It behooves the Nigerian government and all oil producers to begin seek other sources of energy and diversify the sources of revenue.

In his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, published in 1981, Professor Amartya Kumar Sen argued against the view that a shortage of food was the most important explanation for famines, but suggested the interplay of social and economic factors to elucidate this phenomenon. The Nobel laureate’s work has made it clear that several African Oil exporters including Nigeria are a collapsed oil market away from famine. Sustained investment in the manufacturing sector as well as the Agricultural sector while the petrodollars are available would be advisable!

Nigeria, like India, has an elaborate tertiary educational system. Unlike India, however, university graduates of the citadels of higher learning in Nigeria face dismal job prospects. The universities of Ibadan, Nsukka, ABU, Bayero, Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe, OAU etc. could become sources of intellectual expertise for a homegrown High technology industry that could generate billions of dollars in revenue.

New industries could include those for: Energy-efficient technologies and vehicles; ‘Smart ‘ technologies to optimize the function of electric power grids. ‘Green’ buildings and allied technologies (insulating, solar-power producing windows). Improved public transport; and Means of distributed generation – wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal, fuel cells.

Distributed generation measures provide protection against physical, storm and heat wave – related disruption of grids and promote pathways of mitigation (prevention of climate disruption).

These industries, along with those for ecological reconstruction, can create new enterprises and jobs.

We need a new energy policy – and urgently. Japan and the EU have led the way in making this much needed gradual transition to cleaner energy sources. In the US and other countries where such a transition is eminently possible, a great deal of catching up is needed in order that they do not lose comparative advantage in what will surely be burgeoning world markets. In the past century, huge subsidies assisted oil exploration and facilitated the supporting infrastructure – vast networks of highways and airports. Those ‘monies’ will be sorely needed to make this shift in world civilization away from the combustion age. The developing world too, must begin to move away from the use of fossil fuels and its suffocating environmental and economic strangle hold. For all nations, proper, coordinated planning and adequate economic incentives will be needed to jump-start and sustain the new enterprises and markets.

Switching to clean energy sources will require creativity and a lot more collaboration than the world has seen to date. But the potential costs of inaction are enormous, and the proper incentives can create a new clean engine for the global economy and propel us into a much healthier future.

Dr. Achebe is the Medical Director of Whittier Street Health Centre in Boston, USA.

Dr. Paul R. Epstein is Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at Harvard Medical School, USA.