Dirty fuel: How toxic diesel is creating health problems in Africa

In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, there is a growing number of people struggling to breathe. Medical professionals who work at the city hospital’s Respiratory Center think that the problem has to do with worsening air pollution in the city.

Air pollution is a result of increased levels of particulate matter, or PM. Pollution is measured by the levels of PM10 particles, or particles that have diameters of 10 microns or smaller, and PM2.5 particles, which have diameters of 2.5 microns or less. Increases in these particles can stunt lung growth in children, exacerbate asthma, and potentially affect conditions such as dementia. When they enter the bloodstream, they can cause long lasting health problems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that a safe level of PM10 is 20, and a safe level of PM2.5 is 10. In Dakar, the average level of PM10 is more than seven times that and the average level of PM2.5 is three times the recommended level. This problem is not isolated to Dakar – it is likely an issue in many major African cities, however most do not monitor air pollution.

Though there are also natural causes of this phenomenon. A major example is the recent increase in motor vehicles due to the growing population. Though there are cities that have more cars on the road than Dakar, the cars in Senegal tend to be old or secondhand, which causes an increase in pollution.

The use of “dirty fuel” also exacerbates this problem. Recent studies have shown that the fuel imported to Africa is more toxic than that used in Europe or the U.S., due to a much higher sulfur content. Diesel standards in most African countries, like Senegal, are lax compared to those in Europe. European fuel can only have a sulfur content of less than 10 parts per million (ppm), but many African countries allow fuel with a sulfur content higher than 2,000 ppm. A few even allow the use of fuel containing more than 5,000 ppm of sulfur.

Swiss commodity trading companies exploit the lack of regulatory policies in these countries. A landmark 2016 study showed that diesel from pumps in West Africa contained not only 378 times than that of Europe but also had concentrations of toxic substances which are banned in Europe, including benzene and polycyclic hydrocarbons. The trading companies not only transport dirty fuel to Africa but they also mix their own fuels, often in refineries or storage facilities. The companies mix refinery products and other ingredients into highly toxic concoctions that are commonly referred to as “African Quality” within the fuel industry. This violation of public health rights has deadly effects.  The International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that by 2030, the number of deaths caused traffic-related particle dust in Africa will be three times as high as those of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. combined.

Though it is commonly accepted that dirty fuel is a major cause of health problems, there have been a few setbacks in regulating sulfur levels. The first was that for a long time, African countries relied on colonial standards for fuel, which allow for a higher sulfur content than modern standards. A second problem lies with the capacity of refineries in Africa, which are not technically capable of refining fuel to the level of European fuel. Therefore, regulations have to adhere to what those refineries are capable of. Finally, some governments are wary of enacting policies to limit sulfur content because of a potential increase in the price of fuel.

However, with the growing dangers that air pollution is posing, efforts are being made to curb the problem. In 2015, the East African Community imposed more stringent sulfur regulations on several countries, limiting sulfur levels to no more than 50 ppm. While still not as strict as European standards, these restrictions are improving air quality in the region. In his 2015 report, the CEO of Trafigura, one of the Swiss companies most responsible for the exportation of dirty fuel, vowed to remake the trading company’s business model to conform with the 2011 U.N. Guiding Principle on Business and Human Rights.

Most recently, In December of 2018, West African technical experts met in Abidjan to discuss setting regional standards for sulfur content in fuel. The goal is that by the end of 2019, all fuel imported to West Africa will have significantly lower sulfur levels.

Though fuel quality in Africa has improved significantly since 2005, the recent spike in air pollution has been worrisome, especially when considering the effects it has on vulnerable populations, such as children. Though African countries must tighten their regulations, fuel trading companies must also be held accountable for their products by international organizations such as the United Nations. African countries export high quality crude oil to Europe, and the same standard of quality must be met by the European companies that refine it.

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Author: Ananya Murthy

Ananya Murthy is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman in the Elliott School of International Affairs interested in international economics and human rights issues. In addition to writing for the Compass, she is a member of the GW Mock Trial team and of University Singers.