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So, You Pass Your Neighbour? (Part I): The Sneaky Fumes Of death


28 January 2011

By Zulfikar Aliyu Adamu 

Background

For a country that has been gasping in the fumes of generators for over two decades, it has become a status symbol to be seen as being able to buy one. And since owning a generator also comes with small matters like fuelling it – regularly, it has become an economic indicator for many who are eager to be associated with it, in order to distance themselves from society's have-nots. In our uniquely Nigerian way of showing off, being a generator owner gives the wife that significant edge over the neighbours when Super Story is being aired at night. The husband is also able to walk into the house with that extra swagger, as he dangles the car keys after a hard day at work. The corruption and chronic incompetence (at the top level) which has supervised the decay in the power sector can only be matched by the over-zealous sense of vanity and sheer avarice (at the bottom level), which led to the common man to name a particular generator brand: ‘I pass my neighbour'. Clearly, those who derive pleasure in ‘passing' their neighbours would not spurn the opportunity to buy a larger and noisier device, given the right economic circumstance. And so the endless race to outdo each other in all aspects continues. 

Ideally, the purchase a generator and the ability to fuel it every day should be seen as an economic waste and a sign of systemic failure, but not in Nigeria. Stories abound of how residents who had purchased a bigger, louder and costlier generator would silently pray for prolonged power outage so that they can outperform the neighbours with their longer-lasting source of electricity. There is indeed an element of feudalism in many of us, Nigerians.  

If you are one of those who strive to surpass their neighbour with a generator, well, I have news for you and most of it is bad: you may actually end up passing your neighbour but on your way to the great beyond - the land of no return. 

This article aims to enlighten members of the unsuspecting public about the hazards that come with owning and utilising generators in our homes, and by extension offices and other places of abode/work in Nigeria. It begins with a chronicle of some unfortunate but well popularised incidents of domestic fatalities that were caused by generators; and then overviews how the location of generators (operating near the windows; dragged indoors at night or secured in a generator house) can/have been affecting the health and well being of residents. Conclusively, some suggestions are provided which can offer guidance on how to tackle the menace of ‘passing our neighbours'. 

Of political and electrical power

As far as the common man in Nigeria is concerned, vision 2020 is just grammar in the mouths of politicians. What he requires is vision 20-NOW, but our government is either oblivious to this fact; or is unable to act due to acts of commission or omission. As of today (31stDecember 2010), we have successfully raised a generation of Nigerians (i.e. those born around 1985) who cannot claim to know the good old days; - that is, the good old days of steady power - because the last time days were really good in Nigeria, was in the year...erhm, hold on... sorry, a quick check on my calendar reveals I wasn't even born then, but anyway, you get the message. Now consider that on the 7th of November 2010, a news item appeared in the online version of ThisDay newspaper where it was reported that Demeji Bankole, Leader of the House of Representatives, stated in response to the desire for steady electricity that: "no consideration was being given to importers and suppliers of generators", which by his estimate "is a billion dollar industry that needs to be protected".  

The political and economic merits or demerits of this statement from the third most powerful Nigerian official; as well as its implication on our national development is a subject currently being dealt with in many a forum. My interest in this matter is largely on health and safety grounds. But from his comment, and as we move into 2011, it looks like another generation of Nigerians will miss out on steady power for a long time. But before you tick generator in the list of must-have items for the New Year, maybe you ought to read further. 

That Nigerians are dying endlessly and needlessly is not news, unfortunately; as bomb blasts in our country don't even get headline news on CNN and BBC anymore. What is also disheartening is that many of us (buyers and owners of generators) are unknowingly taking actions which can be injurious to our health and rather fatal as well. 

The sneaky fumes of death – A timeline

On Wednesday, 16th of July 2008, Reuters News Agency reported that generator fumes had killed 17 people at a prayer meeting in Isiala Ngwa, Abia State of Nigeria. According to the story, ‘the victims fell asleep on a Saturday in a locked room with the generator still running ...only for their bodies to be discovered the following morning'. Ali Okechukwu, the police spokesperson stated that inhalation of carbon monoxide was been suspected, and that investigations (yeah, right) was ongoing as at press time. Unfortunately, I am unable to provide readers with a follow-up on the Sherlock Holmes inquest that ensued, if ever there was one.  

However, it did not take long before one of the survivors (A certain Mr. Linus Abba) explained that: "I heard strange noises and noticed that the room where we slept was filled with smoke, that is all I can remember because I fainted," Abba told Reuters, and being a Nigerian, he spiced it up with theological logic: "It was a terrible attack by the forces of darkness that we came to fight."  Hmm, forces of darkness indeed. I only wish he was referring to some of the clueless people holding sway in sensitive positions in Nigeria, and not some ‘ancestral spirits' of the evil kind. 17 people died in one fell swoop and yet, the bad news doesn't stop here. 

On Tuesday, 6th of January, 2009; generator fumes again killed a family of 13 in Ohaji-Egbema in South Eastern Nigeria. In this mishap, a family which had converged for Christmas and New Year festivities had gone to bed without remembering to switch off the generator which powered the TV set. Relatives woke up the next morning to find 13 corpses which were confirmed to have died from inhaling carbon monoxide. Similarly, on the 13th of July 2009, ThisDay Newspaper reported another catastrophic misadventure in which generator fumes killed 3 people in Lagos. A couple and their mother-in-law had apparently died quietly at night on account of breathing fumes (from a generating set) which had snuck up on them as they slept. The deceased were survived by two daughters who were (fortunately) only rendered unconscious by the noxious gas. 

Roughly one year later, the Champion Newspaper reported (via AllAfrica.com) that 2 people (a mother, Mrs. Tawa Alabede and her daughter, Sukura) had been asphyxiated by the all-consuming fumes from their generating set. This was on the 9th of July, 2010. And as recently as Monday the 4th of October 2010, the pernicious fumes were at it again when, according to Punch Newspapers, two love birds were sent to the great beyond while they slept with a generator working somewhere in their kitchen. 

But one particular incident should be of deep interest to all of us. Sometime in August 2009 (reported on the 22nd), it was the unfortunate turn of a new bride (Fadila Abdulkadir) to be smothered by the deadly fumes when she decided to take a bath in preparation for her wedding; as reported by Daily Trust. The peculiar aspect of this case is that the incident did not follow the familiar template of overnight suffocation. This was in Katsina, in broad daylight, with friends; relatives and of course a proud groom all excited and waiting. But when she took too long to come out of the shower, they decided to investigate. Based on the accounts of witnesses who discovered her, the bathroom was ‘stuffy with fumes' emanating from a generator that was stored there. The unconsciousness, which she did not recover from, must have been as swift as death was assured. Now, the time it takes for a person to take a typical shower varies; but for co-residents to be worried that a person is ‘taking too long', this person could have spent anything from 30 - 60 minutes in the bathroom. As she was found already unconscious, we can safely assume that she had been overwhelmed within 15 - 20 minutes or so, of showering. Think about it! 

There are many more tales like these, but these one will suffice for now. 

In most of these instances, the notorious but harmless looking I pass my neighbour generator seemed to be the secondary culprit, even though generators of bigger sizes can be even more deadly. I regard generators as secondary culprits because like guns, carbon monoxide is simply an agent of death. The real killers are a bunch of threesome outlaws. First is the incapacity (maybe unwillingness?) of government to provide people with steady power; followed secondly by insecurity - as evident in the desire to secure generators within inhabited rooms including bathrooms. Thirdly, there is of course ignorance on the part of the populace who buy off-the-shelf generators (usually as a source of electric power; and passively as way of oppressing the neighbours) - oblivious to the dangers that lie therein. This ignorance is the crux of this article and I shall elaborate further. 

Carbon monoxide 101: The silent killer

Now, carbon monoxide is not the greyish or blackish smoke that comes out of the silencer of your tokunboh car, okada bike or generator set. Carbon monoxide is indeed a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas. Whereas smoke in general does tend to contain carbon monoxide as a constituent effluent of combustion, the proportions of carbon monoxide depend on what is actually burning. But this toxic constituent of smoke is not called the silent killer for nothing. When carbon monoxide is inhaled into the lungs, it permeates into the blood stream where an oxygen-depriving chemical reaction takes place. The carbon monoxide molecules would stubbornly attach themselves to your red blood cells leading to carboxyhaemoglobin; a process where oxygen molecules in your blood are overthrown by carbon monoxide molecules. This coup is, well, very bloody to say the least. 

The lack of oxygen in your blood can have short or long term effects, with high dosage of carbon monoxide in a short time being the most dangerous, leading to death. Nevertheless, evidence from research suggests that low dose/exposure over a long term can be equally as deadly. Apart from killing, carbon monoxide (let us call it CO as from now) also has a disastrous effect on pregnant women and the unborn. It can render people brain dead and can tamper with the neurological (cognitive and behavioural) aspects of those who escape from its clutches. The list of potential damage from carboxyhaemoglobin to your health is actually longer, but frankly I am eager to conclude the horrifying portions of this write up. The question now is, how do we fall into (and how can we avoid) the silent traps of CO? 

Placement of generators and air movement

There are three classic scenarios of locating generator sets in Nigerian homes/buildings. In the first instance, the generators tend to be located close to the building, usually in the proximity of windows. In the second case, the generators are usually large and noisy enough to warrant a ‘generator house' typically located along the property fence/wall. Thirdly, there are circumstances when generators are relocated indoors, usually as a way of safe guarding them from thieves. All these cases come with their own unique problems or hazards as explained further below.

 

(a)  Mini-Generators close to buildings or windows

The most crucial aspect of any airborne contaminant is how it behaves in an (enclosed) environment with respect to air movement or ventilation. A field survey may provide clues, because it is not clear to me, why exactly it is that many residents appear to place their small-generators close to buildings or windows. It could be due to the short length of transmitting cables, or the need to secure the generator by listening to its chugging sound (can Nigerian crooks steal a running generator, you bet they can!); or it could be for other reasons. What is clear is that people are ignorant of the dangers posed by migrating fumes and gases. This is a typical example of what happened in the case of the 17 people who died in Isiala Ngwa; the dead family of 13 in Ohaji-Egbema as well as the case of Late Mrs. Tawa Alabede and her deceased daughter. 

As windows are usually designed and placed to provide fresh air, in most instances buildings are therefore under negative pressure, with respect to the exterior. Meaning, air will move from higher pressure (external atmosphere) to the interior. The driving force for this air movement or natural ventilation can be wind and/or buoyancy (stack effect) and this inflow of air brings along with it dust, smells and gases. If such gases being ushered in happen to be CO, then lives are seriously at risk.  

The most natural, economic and logical solution to this problem is steady electricity of course. But since there is little evidence that it will happen before the year 2020, (very soon the Vision may quietly change to Vision 2030, after all it was once Vision 2010); those who own generators should endeavour to place them as far away from any habitable room/building as possible. It may mean longer transmitting cables or creating small but secure cages or whatever, but the alternative is either death or behavioural deficits.  Death as an option is a no-brainer; and as for the latter, well, we have enough mad people in Nigeria, I think. The challenge here is for individuals to be able to make informed decisions about where to place their generator sets relative to the direction of prevailing breezes and location of openings (windows). Those who sell these generating sets appear to be no wiser than the buyers; the user-manuals are horrible English translations of Chinese documents, which do not even cover health and safety matters. In short, the average Nigerian is not equipped to deal with this problem. Now, as for the authorities who are supposed to regulate the importation, installation and operation of these generators, well they _________________ (fill in the blank yourself!).

 (b)  Large generators at the building periphery

For those of you who have been able to purchase those humongous generators that terrorise the neighbours every night, it is likely that you have also been able to build a nice shelter for it, somewhere in the corner of your backyard. The issue of pollution in this case has both external/atmospheric as well as internal/indoor consequences for human health. If the exhaust of this generator is unfairly (and illegally) channelled into your neighbours' compound, then you may be guilty of manslaughter (already) or someday. Or at the very least, you will be gradually afflicting members of your community with all sorts of ailment, ranging from nausea, dizziness, headache, confusion, disorientation, fainting, memory loss, seizures, cerebral oedema and even coma. This may sound like typical everyday symptoms of urban dwellers in Nigeria today except for one small fact: medical doctors will tell you that for people with underlying conditions (the old, the sick) or the vulnerable ones (pregnant women and babies); these ordinary sounding ailments can have multiplier effects on their conditions or impair their development (i.e. babies/children). The challenge in this case is for laws that are appropriate enough to (1) regulate the use of large generators in urban areas and (2) allow aggrieved members of community to complain or seek redress about the dangers that such mechanical contraptions may pose to the health and wellbeing of communities.  

So, have you really paid enough attention to the exhaust pipe protruding into your compound, from the generator house of that Alhaji or Chief who lives on the other side of the wall? Look again.

 (c)   Internally placed generators

Placing your generator indoors (whether in an occupied room or store/bathroom) is a foolhardy thing to do, unless it is brand new and has never been switched on. Once a generator begins to operate, it takes a long time (up to weeks) for the fumes to completely stop being given off. Remember the case of Fadila, the new bride who went to take a shower? This process of giving off fumes is called off-gassing and those who have ever bought a brand new rug, or had their homes repainted or bought a polished king-sized bed from the local carpenter, may recall that it often takes days/weeks for the smell to go away. These gases from new rugs, new paint or wood varnishes are simply volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hardly do worse than itchy eyes, running nose or something Alabukun cannot handle. But that is off-gassing for the uninitiated, and can be a serious matter in situations leading to what is known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) i.e. when the cause can't be traced or the ailments are random; or Building Related Illness (BRI) – when the source/ailments can be identified.  

However, for a gas which is as toxic as CO, dragging your generator indoors every night is like dancing on a tightrope which is supported by Armed Robbers on one hand and Kidnappers on the other; as you try to cross crocodile-infested portions of River Niger. That you and your family survive this duel every night is no guarantee that you will enjoy your pensionable years in good health and right senses; or that your children will pass common entrance or WAEC exams. The choice is yours. I hear that there was (again) massive failure in WAEC recently, according to Daily Champion of 24 December 2010; with only 20% of candidates having 5 credits including English and Mathematics. This failure could be due to the falling standards of teaching, it could be due to juvenile delinquency or truancy on the part of students, or it could be because many of these pupils have been living and studying in homes saturated by fumes of generators... Who really knows? If we were a nation that valued data collection, we could be able to correlate the massive failures to living conditions. Maybe it is even poor village people (who cannot afford generators), that are mostly doing well in WAEC these days, I don't know. Do you? 

Anyway, whereas this article is focused on generators, the consequences of keeping your motor bike indoors are similar, as are those of a car in an unventilated garage. In fact, the amount of CO given off by a car that is parked after some minutes of driving is toxic enough to...erhm, let me stop here; lest I start giving suicidal desperados the wrong ideas on how to extinguish their frustrations. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the health impacts or consequences of CO fumes in our homes may never be appreciated now, until sometime in the future. Already, we know that in the academic session ending 2010, only 20% of the students are qualified to get direct admission into universities. The intellectual and academic future of Nigeria is indeed as foggy as the smoke from a poorly maintained generator.  Last year, (2009) when there was also massive failure, WAEC came up with this brilliant explanation: ‘It claimed that the examination standard has remained the same over the years, adding that it was the candidates' attitude that has changed. Other reasons for the mass failure, according to the examination regulatory body, include poor grammatical expression, failure to expatiate on points, misinterpretation of questions, illegible handwriting, wasting of time on unnecessary preambles and poor diagrams'. All these reasons sound like cognitive and behavioural problems to me, and we have already established the fact that CO poisoning can cause confusion, disorientation, memory loss, cerebral oedema, etc. So maybe there is a scientific explanation to these WAEC failures afterall. Could it be that while parents are busy ‘passing' their neighbours with generators at home, their children are being surpassed academically in school? 

For carboxyhaemoglobin, it is the dose that makes the poison. Whether you step into a bathroom which has served as a storage room for your generator; or you allow the odourless fumes to waft their way into your parlour as you watch Network News, every night at 09:00pm - one way or the other you are endangering your life and the lives of your loved ones. Or you are messing up everyone's health and wellbeing, at the very least. 

Ignorance should not be an excuse, especially in today's world, where it has been postulated that the amount of knowledge doubles every 2 to 5 years. What we do with this knowledge is up to us, but in this era, knowing is not even enough. Knowing first, can shape economies, and define the pace of progress in a competitive world. And after knowing, acting quickly is equally important. This is the kind of discourse that South Koreans, Malaysians, Europeans and Americans are engaged in for the betterment of their people. In comparison, we in Nigeria are like in the Stone Age when it comes to Public Health and Safety on account of the non-existent or archaic laws and regulations that hold sway in our constitutions and bye laws. I am not sure how many in our present leadership actually understand what this means, but for those that do, it is time to review the training giving to building industry professionals as well as enacting appropriate health and safety laws.  

As of today, we have laid undersea fibre optic cables; we have been sending communication satellites into space and we expect to be among the leading economies in the year 2020. Excuse me, but is it with 20% pass rate in WAEC that we are going to advance in terms of ITC technology, design and maintain new infrastructures and join the G20 countries in 10 years time? Is anybody actually thinking and planning for Nigeria's future? Or do we expect a sick nation populated by brain-dead, cerebrally-faulty and academically-challenged young men and women to take us forward? 

Role of Architects, Builders, Facility Managers and Urban Planners

As far as building design and operation is concerned, there is need for a serious upgrade of the curriculum in our environmental design professions. To date, I am unaware of any institution of learning in Nigeria that offers any subject or specialisation resembling indoor air quality. And mind you, we are even in the age of airborne pandemics: SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu, e.t.c. not to mention multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB). All professional courses dealing with indoor environmental design (architecture/building services) or community design (urban planning) need to be reviewed from the perspective of contemporary roles and challenges. As far as I am aware, most Nigerian universities which teach architecture are still using the same curricula that have been in place since 1990. Many of these schools are so conservatively backward; they won't even allow students to present their designs using AutoCAD! For crying out loud, has nothing changed, in TWENTY years? Where are the curriculum revision committees? The same can be said for Building Departments. The case of urban and regional planning as a course/profession is equally important because planners are better able to provide a community-based assessment of design intentions and/or remedial interventions.  

All the above issues, call for courses like Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality, Advanced Natural Ventilation, Environmental Pollution & Control as well as Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to be earnestly introduced into our universities. Without these, the upcoming generation of professionals of the built environment will be unequipped to deal with modernisation. Within the context of generators, let us be clear: even in advanced countries, there are occasions when generators are still used till today. And based on what Dimeji Bankole is suggesting, it seems the problem of CO poisoning will not die a natural death in Nigeria, irrespective of whether incumbency, zoning or political mergers deliver our next president. 

Role of Health and Safety laws and public enlightenment

There is an urgent need for laws which would regulate the use of polluting agents like generators in both urban and rural settings. As the government has a duty to ensure the well-being of its citizenry, there must be a way to regulate the purchase, installation and operation of generators. Some of the legislation may be simple steps for example, requiring the use of battery-operated CO sensors in specific places such as mass housing estates. Also, the general public can/should be educated to purchase these items individually. An average CO sensor cost about £30.00 (Thirty GB Pounds) or N7, 000 (Seven Thousand Naira) – but before you grumble, ask yourself how much your life/health is worth. These detectors when placed sensibly can act just like fire alarms, giving a deafening sound which alerts sleeping residents when the indoor concentration of CO exceeds a stated limit. In most normal countries (where laws for these kinds of things exist) the limit for concentration of indoor CO is set at about 10 parts per million (ppm). For a layman, 1 ppm is like having 1 milligram of a substance diluted in 1 litre of a fluid (water/air). And 10 ppm is roughly 11.6 milligrammes of CO particles in one cubic metre (mg/m3) of air. Another gas (carbon dioxide or CO2) can only be harmful in quantities ranging from 1000 to 5000 ppm in indoor air – depending on how long the exposure time is. As you can see, CO is quite toxic by comparison.   

Again, we cannot expect people to make/follow laws about something which they know little or nothing about. Therefore, there has to be a widespread effort at educating the general public and crucially, members of statutory bodies (federal and state legislators, urban development boards or local governments). Ideally, and to avoid a situation where your local councillor seeks ‘estacode' in order to attend a ‘generator course' in one obscure college in Manchester, these bye-laws should be handled from a Federal (top level) for onward dissemination and implementation at the grassroots. I can imagine some crafty politician-cum-technocrat already licking his lips at the prospect of yet another Agency to be established in one of the ministries. How this legislation and education is handled is important and will determine how well we are able to protect the lives of our people; but that (legislation) is not the objective of this article. Others can take it from here. 

The generators that we buy for our buildings are essentially similar in most parts of Nigeria. And based on the pace of our trickling Mega Wattage and hints from Dimeji Bankole, we can safely assume that such generators will be here for a long time to come. The sooner we act to protect our collective health and wellbeing, the better - if we are to avoid further catastrophes. After all, you never know what size of generator your neighbour is planning to oppress you with in the coming New Year! But before you think of surpassing him/her in 2011, maybe you should consult your children's recent academic results for inspiration and guidance. 

Have a happy and safe 2011; and may we not 'pass our neighbours' to the great beyond. Amen. 

 

Zulfikar Aliyu Adamu Civil & Building Engineering Department, Loughborough University, United Kingdom. zulfikar.aliyu@gmail.com

 

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