In Nigeria, crude oil production has long been linked to air, water, and food pollution.
Now, new research from a German institute called CESifo shows just how badly this pollution is affecting public health outcomes. And the damage, researchers found, starts in the womb.
In a working paper, scientists Anna Bruederle and Roland Hodler wrote that babies are almost twice as likely to die in the first 30 days of their life if their mothers were living by an oil spill before they became pregnant.
Oil spills are common in Nigeria, where major oil companies and illegal refiners harvest fossil fuels from the oil rich Niger Delta region. A 2013 paper published in the Nigerian Medical Journal estimated that about 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled into local waterways every year.
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The data revealed in Bruederle and Hodler’s new study found that in 2012, health complications resulting from the oil spill pollution could have killed over 16,000 babies in their first month of life.
Additionally, the paper reported that “oil spills impair the health of surviving children,” by causing growth stunting.
“The results from the study are absolutely shocking,” Hodler, the lead researcher said in an interview with the Guardian. “I didn’t expect to see this effect on pre-conception.”
Many have said that Nigeria is both “blessed and cursed” with abundant stores of crude oil. The country relies on the natural resource as a major driver of its economy;. One study reported that 70% of government revenue and 90% of export earnings were linked to the oil industry.
While Nigeria’s economy is dependent on oil, Nigeria’s environment is suffering from the pollution linked to both legal and illegal methods of refining. Those who traditionally relied on the land and water for their livelihoods are finding it harder and harder to produce uncontaminated food, as toxic byproducts from the refining process seep into rivers, streams, and soils.
Samuel James, a photographer for Wired Magazine, noted that the degradation of land seemed to force more people into the oil business because they could no longer practice traditional agriculture.
“There are places where you can put you hand into the water and it will come out covered in crude oil,” James wrote in a 2013 article.
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“This is a tragedy. Even four to five years prior to conception, an oil spill still matters,” Hodler told the Guardian. “I think this should be seen as a first-world problem for something to be done.”