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So, You Pass Your Neighbour? – (Part II): Mass Murder In Slow Motion

27 January 2011

By Zulfikar Aliyu Adamu

The original article, which was intended to bring to fore, the hazards of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators (e.g. the ‘I pass my neighbour' brand);  has elicited some feedback – including an avalanche of questions. There was no intention to make a sequel, but I am compelled to respond (not individually to the interesting queries), but with this Part II of the ‘generator series' – if I may call it so. This, I feel is best for the overall benefit of readers and I apologise for not being able to respond to all enquiries, individually. I should mention that there were also occasional emails filled with cynical and snide comments from pessimistic, short-sighted, self-centred, champions of mediocrity who neither understood nor appreciated the point made by the original article. But since we know that carbon monoxide poisoning can deteriorate the cerebral grey matter of a person, I have good reason to turn the other cheek.  

However, the bottom line is that despite our groans and cries for steady power, it is a reality check that Dimeji Bankole (Nigeria's number three) wants us to ‘consider importers and distributors of generators' which is purportedly a billion dollar business that ‘needs protection'. Maybe we can now stop wondering why problems of NEPA and PHCN have defied solutions all these years. There is seemingly a powerful lobby group prancing around the premises of our National Assembly. Are the Chinese manufacturers of generators also involved in this web of conspiracy that has kept us enslaved by generators? I don't know, but the beauty of research is that it allows you to ask the hard, brutal questions; before you work towards answers.  This is what I aim for.  

In the meantime, fellow Nigerians, you can all go ahead and plan for a generator, if you don't have one already, that is. But beware that there could be serious health consequences of the negative kind. In this second part, I intend to address many issues including the link between carbon monoxide poisoning and academic performance, as well as what you as an individual can do to safeguard the health and wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones. This is done through some frequently asked questions – and their answers. Again, some advice is put forward to people who are in a position to effect changes. And finally, a list of useful internet links is also provided. 

Re: Carbon monoxide and academic performance

To begin with, my hypothesis that carbon monoxide poisoning could be contributing to the horrendous academic performance of our pupils (evident from 2009 and 2010 WAEC results) is not only plausible, but open for discourse – using facts and figures. I am not motivated to justify this plausibility simply because of the irritable grunts of aggrieved generator dealers and their political cronies. The facts are clear and available to anyone who knows how to use internet search engines like Google.  

To buttress my point, it has been known from as far back as 1967, through a research experiment published in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 57, Issue No. 11) that even very low dose/exposure to carbon monoxide significantly impaired the academic performance of young adults. Now let us fast forward to contemporary times where as recent as 2010, the US Department of Health sponsored a research titled ‘Exploring the Evidence Base for the Relationship between Health and Learning'. This research found that air which contained gases like carbon monoxide affected the ‘memory' and ‘performance' of students, including their ‘ability to 'perform complex tasks' as well as their ‘response time'.  I hope that parents, school principals and people in the Ministry of Education are listening because WAEC gave similar reasons (misinterpretation of questions, poor handwriting, incompletion of answers/tasks, time-wasting, etc) for recent mass failures. In another related investigation in Hong Kong (published in Journal of Paediatrics) it was shown that children, whose parents smoked tended to have up to 28% probability of poor academic performance. Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide, by the way, so the link is obvious. There are many more examples from experimental research, but let's not over flog the issue: carbon monoxide poisoning affects the brain and nervous systems, both of which clearly control academic performance. The extent of impairment on academic performance depends on concentration of the gas and duration of exposure. So how long have you and your children been exposed to carbon monoxide at home or at work?  

Preamble (or why you should worry)

Too many Nigerian homes rely on generators for electricity. This is a fact no one can deny. And the litany of deaths that were chronicled in the original article is a pointer to the scope of ignorance about carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning among our people. My rough guesstimate (based on research findings) is that for every death from CO in a populated space, there could be up to two unrecognised (latent) cases of poisoning among survivors. These latent cases we know, could lead to temporary or permanent ailments, in the form of cognitive and behavioural disorders which were listed in the last article. For emphasis, let me list them again: confusion, nausea, disorientation, fainting, memory loss, seizures, cerebral oedema, etc.  

Such ailments can be instantaneous and serious enough to affect you (yes, YOU my dear reader) right here, right now. You may recall the case of Fadila, the bride who died in August 2009 in Katsina after some minutes of showering in a bathroom, where a generator was stored. Like I tried to analyse in the first article, the scary thing about the late Fadila's case is that the generator in the bathroom was OFF. Now, if the CO gas emanating from a non-operating generator was potent enough to kill her; how safe do you honestly think you are from CO gas pumped out of a working generator? Be extremely careful with generators, I tell you. 

Thus, even if you do not display any visible or instantaneous symptoms, but have been gradually exposed to this odourless, colourless and non-irritating gas over a long time, you are prone to time-weighted exposure to its dangers. This roughly means that over a long period, a harmless substance could cumulatively endanger your health/life. For people whose heart has been moderately exposed to (or injured by) CO poisoning, a report contained in Medical News of 27 January 2006 showed that after a period of about 7 years, such people have a higher risk of dying. To counter this kind of problem, people who are exposed to indoor environments where harmful aerosols (like CO) exist, are protected using Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL). This refers to the maximum length of time an employee for example, should be allowed to work in such a risky environment. It is applied in many fields; from coal mining to nuclear science and in hospital isolation rooms. PEL can further be sub-categorised according to short-term exposure limit or STEL; (where exposure is for example, evaluated every 10-15 minutes) and long-term exposure limit or LTEL (where exposure is evaluated in days/weeks). Gases like CO are so potent that a very short STEL is used to regulate any exposure to them; if one must be exposed at all.  

The reason I avoided using these ‘big grammar' and acronyms in my original article was because I wanted the average reader (who has been helplessly forced to use generators at home/work); to appreciate the dangers without flipping through a dictionary after every two sentences. Going forward also, I needed to make this brief elaboration cum clarification for those who may think I am making wild claims about CO poisoning and academic performance. This gas can kill within minutes and is so dangerous that after certain period of exposure, death may even be an easy/better way out for victims because it will really mess with your brain and organs. What use is a person with a faulty brain, a non-performing liver, a weakened heart and malfunctioning kidneys? So whether you buy a CO sensor and install it indoors or you place your generator set in a sensible location; it is still your decision. Nevertheless, while my hypothesis that CO poisoning could be affecting the academic performance of our children is plausible, (based on established scientific facts verifiable by anyone); it is only a detailed, forensic and practical investigation that can reveal the true extent of this danger in our homes and offices. I usually make my opinions on such matters in research circles, but often, it is necessary to present watered-down versions of research findings for public consumption. 

Need for scientific enquiry

Among the responders of the first article, are a pitiful category of people who probably have one or two things to do with either generator business or Nigerian politics, or both. Remember that generator importation and distribution is a billion dollar industry in Nigeria, so many businesses/interests actually thrive on our misfortunes. These responders construed my article as an attack on their interests. If that is what my article has done, I offer no apologies whatsoever. I also have an interest in this matter albeit, a non-financial and a non-political one. That is why I postulated based on my expertise and concern that because of (1) the preponderance of generators in our homes; (2) the widespread ignorance about CO and (3) the impact of CO's toxicity to human cognitive and behavioural systems - which can affect academic performance; then it is (4) plausible or likely that there is a link between mass WAEC failures and carbon monoxide in our homes.  

If I could translate these four points into Pidgin English, I would do so, to avoid been misconstrued and misquoted. The problem with us in Nigeria is that we are not used to solving societal problems scientifically. We prefer ‘fire brigade' approach especially if it leads to chop-I-chop. Only a detailed field survey (no, not questionnaires) which includes actual measurement of indoor concentration of CO over a long time (e.g. one year) can provide a true picture of the potential harm being done by this gas in a typical home which uses a generator for say, 6-12 hours every day.  

So, sequel to the 31% pass rate in 2009, WAEC itself has told us that the standards of its exam have been unchanged over the years, but it is the ‘attitude' of students that is to blame. Now since WAEC did not explicitly or implicitly point fingers at teachers or teaching methods, (the usual suspects); then I think we should be scrutinising the attitudinal (e.g. cognitive & behavioural) factors for such failures. These factors, (according to WAEC) are responsible for ‘poor grammatical expression, failure to expatiate on points, misinterpretation of questions, illegible handwriting, wasting of time on unnecessary preambles and poor diagrams'. Similarly and worryingly, if in the year 2010 only about 20% of the students who sat for WAEC exams got 5 credits including English and Mathematics, (a further decline from the 31% pass rate of 2009); then this signifies a trend which is dangerous to our national progress as a country. We claim to be working on Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and we aspire to join the G20 countries by 2020 – with these sorts of academic performances, we shall be lucky to be among the G150 countries in 10 years time. So all I am suggesting, is for a scientific inquiry into the cognitive and behavioural issues facing our students; many of whom we all know study in homes powered by generators. How hard can that be for the Ministries of Education and Health to organise?  

Ideally, such an enquiry would have some element of experimental control, whereby (a large) sample of students who live/study in homes powered by generators are evaluated against those who live/study in homes using clean energy. Now, therein lies an annoying problem: where do we find students in Nigeria who live/study in homes using clean energy to compare with? Oh, wait, maybe we could test them against students from our villages, (assuming we can find a village where generators are not used widely) but even then, the quality of teaching (City vs. Village) now becomes a debilitating factor.  Ha, Nigeria and its problems! Anyway, it is not rocket science. This investigation can be done, assuming someone actually cares, and assuming ‘that' someone is brave enough to accept the outcome and take remedial steps.  

Self protection: Some Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tips

Before our ministries of education and health eventually get round to investigating the dangers of CO poisoning to our health and wellbeing, it won't be a bad idea to start helping ourselves. Given that generators will be part of our must-have items for the foreseeable future, below is further guidance on how to protect yourself as well as your family or colleagues/neighbours through some simple Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tips and tricks. This has become necessary because I deduce from comments made in email responses that generally, Nigerians are wary, sceptical, distrustful and disillusioned about any legislative and statutory help coming from the authorities, as per this matter. Even as we all hope for better leadership, many such Nigerians would understandably, like to know what they can do for themselves. This is a good sign. So in the following sub-sections; I aim to provide more details (the how's and where's) about generators and CO sensors for a typical home. 

Let me reiterate again, that carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless and colourless gas. And it is not even an irritant, meaning it does not make as much as an itch in your nose. If you can smell it or it tickles your nose, then it is definitely not CO. So please, dear readers DO NOT RELY ON YOUR NOSE to inform you about presence of CO in a room. Your nose may detect smoke which may contain some amount of CO, but the notorious gas is by itself very stealthy and does not need smoke to move from point A to point B. Don't forget that its nickname is the silent killer. In fact, for those of you who are reading this article from a public internet cafe (most likely powered by a generator located somewhere by the entrance/corridor); chances are that some quantity of this noxious gas is creeping its way towards you, even as you read this. Don't panic yet. Keep reading, but if you get sensations of nausea (i.e. feel like vomiting) with or without mild headache, you better log off and vamoose! 

The following are a series of frequently asked questions about CO sensors and generators in Nigerian homes; with corresponding answers.  

QUESTION: How is CO actually produced by generators?

ANSWER: CO is produced when there is incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Kerosene, Diesel and Petrol are examples of fossil fuels and are common sources of CO poisoning. These fuels are used in homes through appliances like kitchen stoves and of course generators. Other sources of CO include tobacco smoke and exhaust from cars. Because CO is a colourless, odourless and non-irritating gas, a poorly designed, badly maintained or horribly located generator can distribute this gas into your home. You would not know it, unless you display symptoms of the immediate or long-term types. High dose of CO gas kills within minutes. Slow dose over a long term affects the brain, nervous system and organs. 

QUESTION: What is a CO sensor?

ANSWER: A traditional CO sensor is a small device that emits a loud alarm after detecting presence of this gas in a room. The alarm is usually loud enough to wake people who are in deep sleep. It is NOT the same as a smoke detector, which detects smoke in general. Most smoke detectors operate using optical or similar technology, meaning there has to be coloured particles of smoke, dense or thick enough to warrant an alarm. So because CO is colourless, you cannot rely on your smoke detector for this purpose. It is rare and undesirable for a detector to perform both smoke and CO alarm functions. 

QUESTION: Where can I buy a CO sensor?

ANSWER: Your best bet for a cheap CO sensor is from online retailers (see samples here: Amazon.co.uk; Note: I am not endorsing this retailer, just giving an example for sake of convenience). The prices range from as little as £15.00 GB Pounds (i.e. N3,500) per sensor to about £30.00 GB Pounds (i.e. N7,000). I think these are reasonable prices, with respect to the value of our lives and health. However, if a retailer like Amazon will not take your debit/credit card or will not post the items to you on account of your being a Nigerian, (well, we have a certain reputation that scares online marketers); then I suggest some of you consider the importation of CO sensors as a viable business in Nigeria. You would be doing people a great service, making a handsome profit and saving countless lives in the process. If we (as a country) were really serious at manufacturing, many small-scale industries would boom from this problem/market very easily, because the technology involved is basic. In the meantime, there are many manufacturers in Europe and America. It is also likely that such sensors are made in South Africa, from whence it may be cheaper to import, but I do not know for sure.  

Whatever you do, make sure you do NOT buy tokunboh sensors, please. I need not explain why. It is bad enough that many cars and generators in Nigeria (all sources of CO) are second hand. Don't toy with your life/health by making ‘cheap but costly decisions'- if you know what I mean. If you have a cousin or an in-law abroad (especially non-African abroad) now is the time to get extra-friendly with them so that they can send/bring a couple of sensors to you. As for me, sorry but I cannot help you in this regard. 

QUESTION: Are CO sensors the only option for protection?

ANSWER: We have already ruled out your nose as a reliable detector of CO gas. There are however, additional approaches for protection. One of them involves something called the CO Indicator Patch, while the other involves use of specific indoor house plants. These are further explained below:  

(1)   The CO Indicator Patch

The CO Indicator Patch is a device gives a visual cue or sign (i.e. changes colour, just like litmus paper) when the concentration of CO in a room has reached a specific level. This option is NOT recommended, unless it is for test running, i.e. to decide if a room/facility requires full CO sensors/alarms described above. A common example of CO Indicator Patch is the one made by First Alert (I am not endorsing this product/company, just giving an example). Now, why would you need this type of device? Well, take for example, a case where you own a large facility (e.g. factory, shopping centre, fast food kitchen, hotel or even office complex) and you are unsure or worried about presence of CO in parts of the interior. Such indicators will tell you over a test period (e.g. between 1 to 4 months) whether CO is actually seeping in from a big generator located outside. Afterwards, you can make an informed decision about whether you need to buy and place permanent CO sensors. WARNING: An indicator patch only changes colour over a long time to signify presence of CO gas. Therefore, do not (I repeat) do NOT use it in places where instant alarm is required, e.g. bedrooms/homes. 

(2)   Indoor House Plants

Surprise, surprise! But yes, some indoor plants have been scientifically proven to have air-cleansing abilities. Now, wait, hold on please. Before you begin planting ‘Okro' and ‘Ewedu' inside your house, let us be clear that it is not all plants that have this special talent. Every plant essentially produces oxygen as a by product of photosynthesis, so this is by itself a good thing. However, only specific plants are recognised as being able to ‘suck' in harmful gases like CO. Also keep in mind that these unique house plants are NOT a substitute for CO sensors, because plants do not talk or shout when there is danger, do they? These plants will basically ensure that your indoor air is much healthier in the long run, with or without a sensor. Some examples of plants known to have these unique cleansing properties are found at the end of this article, under ‘Suggested Readings'.  

QUESTION: How many CO sensors do I need in my house?

ANSWER: As for the quantity of CO sensors a typical home would need, well, there is no straightforward answer. Much depends on the sources of harm/danger. You may think of placing only one sensor in your living room (probably because your own mini-generator is always in the front of the house). There is no harm in that, but what about the risk from your neighbour's generator which may be close to your bedroom window? My suggestion would be to place any sensors with respect to all the potential sources of CO gas. If, as an extreme example, the neighbours located in the front, side and back of your house all have generators which operate reasonably close to your windows (e.g. less than 6 meters); then you should place CO sensors in all the occupied rooms (living/dining/bedrooms) that are at risk from such generators. There is no need for sensors in stores and bathrooms in this case because the source of air contamination is external. You have already been forewarned NOT to bring in your generator into your store or bathroom at the end of each day. Remember Fadila?  

Now let's do some maths. To have three CO sensors in your house (which may be an extreme case, by the way) you will have to part with between N10,500 @ N3,500 per sensor; or N22,000 @ 7,500 per sensor. But you should buy and install only the quantity of sensors that you need and do not try to ‘pass your neighbour' by having a CO sensor in each and every room, corridor, staircase and wardrobe! The sensors usually work with two AA size batteries, so maintenance (check the dictionary if you've forgotten its meaning) has to be done every few months. Longer lasting batteries may be more cost-effective, but all batteries eventually die out. As such in countries like the USA, many local authorities are encouraging such sensors to be connected directly to a building's electricity wiring. For obvious reasons, this would not work in Nigeria for now. If we could have constant electricity in Nigeria, we would not need generators in every home, meaning we would not need to worry so much about CO poisoning or worry so much about CO sensors and their wiring... (Sigh). The user manuals that come with each sensor will explain the nitty-gritty details of test-running the alarms once every 2-3 weeks, just to make sure they are functional. 

I should re-emphasise that having up to three sensors (no matter how cheap they are) is probably unnecessary. If you have neighbours that have surrounded you with generators on two or three sides of your house, the best thing to do is to politely ask them to relocate the generators (see further details down below). The best option for dealing with air contamination is always to eliminate the problem/source. If this does not work, then you should consider having CO sensors in the most occupied rooms at risk (essentially living/dining areas and bedrooms). And by the time the sensors are shrieking loudly every few hours/days, you would have enough (friendly or legal) justification to ask your neighbours to consider your life and health.  

QUESTION: Okay, I have bought the sensor. Where should I place it in the house?

ANSWER: After purchasing a CO sensor, placing it (or getting an electrician to do so) in your home/office is also a simple but critical matter. Place it too far away - and it will be ineffective or take long to register dangerous levels of the gas. Place it too near to the generator and it will give unrealistic and false alarms. My advice would be to place it roughly in the ‘centre' of a room. You may also place it by the window itself, but how effective this option will be with regards the mean concentration in the entire room is questionable, especially if you have two windows or more. Vertically, I would recommend that the sensor should be placed at a height of no more than 1.0 to 1.2 meters, on a wall. So this should rule out placement of sensors on ceilings. Let me explain why.  

There are three kinds of gases: those that contain particles (yes, all gases are made of particles) which are lighter than air; those whose particles are denser/heavier than air; and those that are in between. CO is only slightly lighter than air. This means that it essentially floats in air, but not so quickly. So, placing the sensor on a ceiling will mean that you may have already been exposed to CO for a much longer period before the gas is detected at the ceiling level. However, if the sensor is at a height of say 1.0 meter on a wall, you are reasonably sure that any CO entering the room will be detected once it gets to nose level of a person sitting on a chair or lying down on bed. Also avoid fixing the sensor on the same wall that has a window. Place it on an adjacent (90 degree) wall for better effectiveness. 

If you live in a flat with a shared corridor, you may also fix some sensors along that corridor at distance of say every 3 to 4 meters. Also ensure that no resident is EVER allowed to operate or store a generator in such shared spaces, (this includes lobbies, stairwells and shared balconies).  

QUESTION: Where is the safest location for small generators?

ANSWER: Again, the first step in dealing with indoor air pollution is to deal with the problem at the source. But generators are not going to become extinct in Nigeria any time soon. Therefore, you are best advised to relocate the generator as far away as possible from any building which is occupied by people/animals. If this means erecting secure cages for the generators to guard against theft, then so be it. Ideally, residents in an area can come together and create generator zone(s) in neutral and safe locations in a housing estate for example. In the event that relocating the generator far away is not possible/realistic (or that you live in a congested estate or face-me-I-face-you) then you may consider elevating the generator on a pedestal. The reason for this is simple.  

Earlier, I explained that CO is slightly lighter than air. If the generator is left on the floor of a congested place, it would be easy for the contaminant gas to migrate indoors. Now by elevating/raising the source of CO (i.e. the generator) by a height of say 2.5 meters, you are ensuring that the gas will float skywards and not descend downward into your window level. For a bungalow, the bottom of windows (or sills), are typically at elevation of 0.9 meters from the floor, and the height of a window is typically 1.2 meters, giving a total of 2.1 meters; from floor to topmost part of your window. Elevating a generator therefore, to a height of 2.5 meters is common sense. The platform should be erected in a clear and free space, and not close to wall. How can this be achieved? Well, consult your local architect/civil engineer, and explore all the options by discussing building materials like galvanised pipes or block work – just like we do with elevated water tanks. For cost effectiveness, neighbours may wish to create one large pedestal, which can accommodate many small generators, accessible to all. 

I would personally prefer to relocate the generator far away from the building (6 meters) rather than building a pedestal. If all neighbours (and landlords) cooperate, a distant and safe generator zone can be created for the benefit of everyone. Elevating a generator on a pedestal will ONLY be essential in places where there are space constraints e.g. tight mini-estates. Accessing such elevated generators (e.g. through some form of steps) regularly for fuelling and maintenance purposes, will be important. Okay, I concede that for some people (including those who live in congested estates or face-me-I-face-you), this pedestal business may sound farfetched. Yet it is not compulsory because you have options.  Option 1 is you wait for PHCN to start giving us constant electricity by the year 20XX – (where X is a positive integer greater than or equal to 1). Option 2 is you roll the dice and take your chance everyday with CO poisoning. 

QUESTION: I have a big generator sheltered in the backyard; what should I do?

ANSWER: If you have a roaring generator which is sheltered, I hope that it is also located as far away from the house/building as possible. Assuming that we are not talking about offices which close at the end of the day, your generator is likely going to operate much longer, late into the night and possibly till you have ironed your ‘agbada' in the morning. If the generator house is not far away, (or is less than 6 meters to your main house) the first thing I would advice is that you check the direction which the exhaust pipe is leading to. Hopefully it is not pointing horizontally towards your building and its windows – or your neighbour's building/windows. If it is, then you should alter the direction of the exhaust pipe immediately. Although smoke in general tends to rise vertically, the momentum with which it is being pumped out by a large generator gives it an initial horizontal trajectory, before the smoke begins its upward ascent. Next time you pass by a large generator, kindly observe this phenomenon. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that if an exhaust of such a generator is close to a habitable building; such smoke is not encouraged or allowed to come close to openings (doors/windows). The exhaust system of the generator should therefore be retrofitted with an ‘L-shaped' channel that takes the smoke as high up as possible, like a chimney. 

The height of this ‘chimney' depends on many factors. If for example, you are living in (or located close to) a storey building, then you don't want this ‘chimney' to send smoke to the windows of people living on higher floors. That would be cruel and dangerous. The situation of large generators located around multi-floor building is actually a complex matter. In such instances, smoke tests are supposed to be done to investigate the pattern and direction of gas movement with respect to prevailing winds and location of openings. Some of you may fall asleep if I begin to elaborate on this one, besides, smoke tests in Nigeria? Hmmm. Needless to say, endeavour to be considerate to your neighbours when reviewing the status quo or when making future alterations to the exhaust pipes of your gargantuan generator.  


(a)   Volume of a room/store

Another point to note is that the relatively small size (volume) of a room e.g. the bathroom in Fadila's case contributes to the high concentration or accumulation of fumes. This led to her quick collapse and death. The bathroom (whether it has a window, which was open or not) is obviously not a well-ventilated space. Therefore a build up of carbon monoxide from the stored generator occurred quickly. Entering such a small room puts you in clear and present danger. Please, I will never be weary of repeating this warning: DO NOT store a generator that you use frequently indoors. It is suicidal and you can fall into coma within a few minutes and die as a result of CO poisoning. 

(b)   Air conditioned rooms

Some have asked questions about air conditioned rooms in their homes. Now, when a room is air conditioned using either window or split unit, it presents a unique and complicated case. Firstly, you should understand that the AC unit takes its fresh air from somewhere, and that somewhere is the outdoor environment. So if the outdoor air intake of the AC is close to a generator, then your AC could be sending CO into your cosy bedroom as you sleep. Even though a typical AC has a filter, to the best of my knowledge, such filters are mostly for dirt/dust and other fairly routine impurities. I seriously doubt that the filters are designed to prevent the ingress of CO. There are specific kinds of high efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters that can be guaranteed to work but they are expensive and are definitely not included in your window/split AC unit. HEPA filters are only used in the AC systems of clean rooms (e.g. microchip manufacturing) or hospital isolation rooms where people with airborne diseases (e.g. tuberculosis) are kept. 

Another issue with an air conditioned room in your house is that when the AC is operating, it puts the room under positive pressure. Meaning, the general flow of air is from the room to the exterior. This by itself is a (good) preventive mechanism in a way because any incoming gas or smell will likely be countered by the room air trying to escape. However, when the AC is not working, the pressure balance is neutral and CO from a generator can build up in the room (e.g. over weekends or holidays). Occupants who move into such rooms are in immediate danger, up until the air has been refreshed.  


The advice and suggestions made here are just from my humble experience working/researching in building ventilation and indoor air quality for about 10 years. I sincerely hope that more people will become aware of the everyday dangers lurking just round the corner of their homes. The true extent of any damage being done by CO to the populace may not be known until sometime in the future. I am personally very concerned about this future, on account of the sheer ignorance that holds sway among so many generator users. But hopefully, we can begin to protect ourselves until such a time when our leaders begin to lead us well. Some of these issues pointed out here may have sounded alarmist, but hopefully many are now aware that CO is indeed a silent and quick killer. If a gas is dangerous enough to kill within a few minutes, imagine what it can do to the internal organs of those who survive contact with it. We should therefore, spare no effort to protect our health and lives, as too many of us are dying from ‘brief illnesses' nowadays. Those of you who have the ears of government or the concerned/organised private sector should endeavour to carry the message of CO poisoning further. There are examples to be learnt from other countries.  

At the very least, we need to have television commercials, radio jingles and newspaper adverts to enlighten and remind everyone, regularly, about CO poisoning from generators. The matter should also be addressed in subjects like Introductory Technology and Integrated Science in our secondary schools. In higher institutions, there are Environmental Pollution Control, Indoor Air Quality as well as Health Impact Assessment (HIA) specialisation courses that can be introduced as electives. Our professional architects, planners and development control boards need to strictly implement existing standards such as minimum setbacks between houses; because its abuse complicates cross-flow of contaminated air amongst houses.  

Relevant continuing professional development (CPD) courses should be designed and administered by trade bodies like the Nigerian Institute of Architects. Generally, much more information on public health and safety in Nigeria needs to be available. Health workers should be empowered to participate in a collaborative monitoring programme where people with symptoms of CO poisoning, their location and circumstances are recorded in a national database. Someday, people will plot graphs and charts from such a database from which we would understand the trends of this malady in order to aid better planning, education, control and treatment. If we cannot handle CO poisoning, what will we do when an airborne pandemic like SARS or Swine Flu hits us one day?  

Crucially, we urgently require laws and regulations on issues like generators in densely populated housing areas and their use in public places. It is amazing that there is no guidance on these, whatsoever. We are hence in dire need of Health & Safety Acts, with a regulatory and implementation body such as Occupational and Public Safety Agency (OPSA) - which every serious country has in one form or another. This would require a cross-disciplinary team of experts, ranging from building industry professionals to chemists and engineers as well as community health workers. And indoor air quality or air pollution is just ONE of many public safety hazards for such an agency to tackle. There are related matters requiring attention including noise pollution, water pollution, use of mechanical/electrical equipment or devices, biological hazards to health workers, musculoskeletal disorders, and so on.  

The truth is, as a developing country, we place too much emphasis on physical infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, buildings) which are indicators of quality of place (QOP) – but to the detriment of safety and health matters (e.g. air and water pollution) which are indicators of quality of life (QOL). However, both QOP and QOL must go hand in hand. Any surprise as to why the life expectancy of a typical Nigerian is today placed at a lowly 45-50 years? You may live in a mansion, but how long will you last as a human being if your air is poisoned?  

The sooner we re-strategise, the better; if we truly want to develop. Shirking from this responsibility, amounts to unforgivable negligence on the part of those whom we gave our mandate at the state and federal levels.  

Let me end with this parting shot. For Nigerians to be failing exams regularly, getting sick slowly and dying quietly - simply because they took money (from their own pockets) to buy generators as a result of the incompetence and corruption in our power sector; is not just a tragedy. It is mass murder in slow motion. 

I hope that the information contained herein will be beneficial to as many people as possible, so kindly spread the word please. I will not hesitate to elaborate more – maybe with a Part III - if need arises, as there is so much more to be covered and learnt. I thank you for reading up to this point. Stay safe, love your neighbour as you love yourself and remember: changing Nigeria begins with YOU.  

Have a prosperous 2011, and may your days be long.   

Further (suggested) reading (Links)
(Part I of the Series):

http://lowhangingfruits.blogspot.com/ 2010/12/so-you-pass-your- neighbour-part-i.html
(About carbon monoxide poisoning):
http://www.cbc.ca/ health/story/2009/12/31/f-carbon- monoxide-poisoning.html
(About Indoor Air Cleaning Plants):
http://www.ei-resource.org/myblog/ House-Plants-as-Air-Purifiers-Plants- absorb-formaldehyde-benzene -and-other-toxic-chemicals.html 


Zulfikar Aliyu Adamu

Civil & Building Engineering Department,

Loughborough University, United Kingdom.



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