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While the oil and gas sector has been a major economic boost for Nigeria and its citizens, it has also brought pain to people who work directly in the petroleum industry, especially those exposed to heavy metals due to oil exploration. Martins Ifijeh writes on how these industrial chemicals and other sources of heavy metals are depriving couples from having babies

It is a lonely road for Nigerian women who, after years of marriage, do not have children to call their own. Beside the pain of not having babies run round their homes to complete the joy of motherhood, there is nothing compared to the trauma of ostracism and the stigma that comes with being infertile in a typical Nigerian society.

This was the life of Anwuri Ovwasa, a 43 years old oil exploration expert in Port Harcourt, who for 13 years of steady career growth, continued to nurse the pain of not having an offspring of hers to share her legacies with.

At her age, she is a successful woman by every measure. She has almost everything going for her. Left the University of Benin as one of the best graduating engineering and only female student in her class, had a postgraduate degree from Aston University, United Kingdom, and by her 30th birthday, she had settled into her matrimonial home, with a good job in an oil and gas firm in Rivers State. It was the dream she had labored for. It was the kind of life she wished for as a child.

But Anwuri knew all these mean nothing to the society if she has no child to call her own. So as her career progressed with more money in her bank account, she consciously worked towards getting pregnant, as she would ensure nothing official took her farther away from her husband during periods of her ovulation.

At first, the delay in conception was nothing of concern to the couple as they felt their busy schedule was playing a major role in their childlessness. In some cases, they would laugh out their infertility as stress or work induced, and then they would sometime take days off just to be close to each other.

But as months turned into years, the laughter turned into anxiety, and she began to worry. She would spend lonely nights wondering why nature and science suddenly found limits in her home, whereas every couple she knew were making babies.

“Sometimes when huge monies drop in my account, instead of excitement, I will begin to shed tears, because I knew exactly what type of life I could give my children with such money. I often times imagine going on vacation with them, buying them the best things in life and taking them to the best schools in town, but that was one thing that never looked like becoming reality anytime soon,” says Anwuri in a chat with THISDAY.

By the fourth year, Anwuri and her husband had started looking for other assisted reproductive ways to get pregnant. From herbal concoctions to making donations in churches as seed of faith, up to undergoing Invitro fertilization (IVF) multiple times, the couple then resigned to fate, and hoped someday a miracle will come their way.

Discovery of Heavy Metals

But Anwuri missed the point all along. Her inability to get pregnant was due to the presence of heavy metals in her body, which she had unknowingly acquired over the years in the course of her work.

While her job came with huge salaries and estacodes, it also came with huge occupational hazards, top of which is the presence of industrial chemicals and heavy metals in the body which predisposes one to infertility, cancer and other health concerns.

By June 2018, Anwuri and her husband were adviced to try detoxification; a suggestion they obliged. By the time they were done with the process in a detox clinic, it was found that she had high deposition of Polychlorinated Biphenols in her body, while her husband, who works with the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), had a high concentration of EthoxylatedNonylphenol in his system.

These are both toxic chemicals they may have picked up over time during the course of their work as exploration experts in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria.

On specifics, Polychlorinated Biphenols is a toxic aromatic compound often formed as wastes in industrial processes. Occupational health experts believed this endocrine destructor was one of the heavy metals associated with crude oil, and if exposed to humans for long, through inhalation, body contact and swallowing, it has a high tendency to affect the reproductive health of a woman, cause miscarriage, and reduce birth weight of babies, as well as cause cancer, respiratory tract disease and outright death.

On the other hand, EthoxylatedNonylphenol, according to a reproductive endocrinologist and anatomy expert, Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, is an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and mediates hormonal imbalance, thereby negatively impacting male development and reproductive ability. He said this impedes brain development and could cause atrophy of the thymus gland, which is a critical component of the immune system.

While Anwuri and her husband were moving from pillar to post for over a decade in search of babies, the root cause of their infertility lied within their occupation.

Pregnant at Last

Anwuri is currently six months pregnant, and hopes within the next three months she would hold her own baby and give him or her all the beautiful upbringing she had envisaged.

Anwuri said she has more colleagues who are presently still struggling with the pain of infertility, and she believes if more people know about the reproductive health hazard associated with her kind of job, they would know how to tackle it.

The Lead that Almost Took Her Marriage

Omonefe is one Lagosian who drives from Iyana Ipaja axis of Lagos State every workday to her office in Victoria Island. On a regular day, it would take an hour 30 minutes to access her workplace, but during traffic hours, the time may double. She has undergone this ritual since 2014 when she got the lucrative job.

Every time Omonefe takes the wheel, she unbuckles her shoes and drives on bare foot. It is the only way she feels comfortable while driving, and she loves driving anyways. But innocently as her driving attitude may seem, this is gradually pulling into her body system heavy doses of lead, an endocrine disruptor which gradually circulates in her body, settles in her bones, and then disrupts her reproductive life.

To be clear, all surfaces of both the brake and speed pedals of cars are laced with lead, and car manufacturers do not expect anyone to drive on bare foot because of the toxicity these pedals carry, especially lead, which they are coated with.

It has been five years since Omonefe’s marriage to her heartthrob, but no child to complete her home. The peace she used to enjoy is fast eluding her; as pressure is piling on her husband to do what she fears most – that is marry another wife.

Her gynaecologist has told her everything was fine with her reproductive system; no reproductive tract infection, no fibroid, no uterine burn, and on her husband’s part, everything seemed okay as well, as certified by the series of tests he had done.

Road to Solution

But sometime in November this year, Omonefe gave one of her doctor-friend, an endocrinologist, a ride, who then observed her driving habit. She was then advised to go check for the level of toxic chemicals in her system, as that could signal where her fertility challenge was coming from.

“That is how I went to confirm, and I was told I have heavy doses of lead in my system,” says Omonefe.

By the 12th of December, she underwent treatment to flush out all toxic wastes from her body. “I am hopeful that within the next few weeks I will ‘take in’, and subsequently have a child to call my own,” she says with a renewed hope.

Omonefe has henceforth stopped driving on bare foot.

Expert View

An occupational health expert and an endocrinologist, Dr. Kingsley Ejembi believes lead is an endocrine disruptor that has the tendency to alter a woman’s reproductive health, and that high dose of the toxic chemical can cause infertility.

He says lead is an underappreciated environmental toxin that Nigerians must prevent from entering their system, and that the more one is exposed to it, the more likely the person is going to get lead poisoning. “Many small doses of lead over a long time can become toxic, because the little that enters the body per day can remain in the bone for more than 30 years.

“When a woman has high occurrence of miscarriage, one of the things she should check out for is exposure to lead and other heavy metals. During pregnancy, current or past exposure by the mother could also present a risk to the fetus, because when a woman is pregnant, the fetus gets blood directly from the mother and this could lead to brain damage or loss of the fetus. High dose of lead could also lead to decreased sex drive both in males and females,” he said.

He said if indeed Omonefe went through detoxification, there was a tendency that the lead and other heavy metals may have been flushed out of her system.

Crude Oil as Nigeria’s Blessing, Curse

Sharing his thoughts on the effect of heavy metal on infertility, Prof. Ashiru said he has realised that virtually most of the patients presenting with infertility, who come from the oil-producing regions, have myriads of toxins and heavy metal overload.

He said the development of the country’s petrochemical industry has brought great wealth to Nigeria, but that its crude oil is toxic and has many harmful effects on health and the environment.

He said: “It emits many toxins in all stages of its extraction and refinement, starting with the methods used to explore the environment and digging, transportation, purification into various products, as well as how the end-users then consume it.

“Numerous chemicals are used in various processes in the oil and gas sector, the numbers and complexity of which have substantially increased over the past decades. Many of these chemicals are toxic and linked to illnesses,” he said.

According to him, Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (also known as 2-Butoxyethanol or 2-BE), which is found in foaming agents and used during hydraulic fracturing operations, is deadly when inhaled and may lead to blood disorders after exposure by a person. He stressed that this chemical leads to degeneration of the testes among other reproductive problems.

“Another chemical called 2-(2-methoxy ethoxy) ethanol found in many products used in the oil and gas industry, including biocides, hydraulic fracturing fluids and shale stabilizers pose great danger. It is a suspected carcinogen, known to cause deformities and organ malformations in newborn babies. It can also negatively affect male fertility,” he said.

He said whether exploration takes place onshore or offshore, it generates wastes that include atmospheric emissions, spillage of drill cuttings, drilling fluids, deck drainage, well treatment fluids, sanitary and domestic wastes and accidental oil spills.

“Atmospheric emissions from rigs consist mainly of exhaust from diesel engines supplying power to meet drilling and hoisting electricity requirements of platforms. These emissions may and do contain small amounts of Sulphur dioxide, (dependent upon fuel Sulphur content) and exhaust smoke (heavy hydrocarbons). An unexpected over-pressure formation encountered during drilling may result in a blowout or gas discharge,” he added.

Infertility Can Affect Rich and Poor

While contamination with heavy metals is not only exclusive to the rich and the middle class like Anwuri and Omonefe, Prof. Ashiru, during the ‘Merke More Than A Father’ event recently in Kenya, which THISDAY attended, said it cuts across all divide, and that anyone exposed to the toxic chemical should rather get detoxification before it leads to hazards in their bodies.

He said these metals can also be found in large fishes, chemically grown and processed foods, alum, cosmetics, drying agents, cans, ceramics, construction metals, dental amalgams, pesticides, pollution, tobacco smoke, as well as toothpaste.

He cautioned that eating stock fish and large fish may lead to deposition of lead and mercury in the body.

He is of the view that since more people were coming down with infertility, the government, as well as the people should be cautious of all forms of toxic chemicals, including environmental toxins, as well as industrial pollutions.

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