As It Happens

Study links oil spills to increased rate of infant mortality in Niger Delta

A new study finds that infants in Nigeria are at double the risk of dying before they reach a month old if mothers lived near the scene of an oil spill before conceiving.
Devastating oil spills in the Niger Delta over the past five decades will cost $1 billion to rectify and take up to 30 years to clean up, according to a UN report. (National Geographic Stock/Ed Kashi/WWF-Canon/Associated Press)
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Oil spills in Nigeria are common. Every year, an estimated 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta. And now, new research suggests that environmental damage poses a grave danger to pregnant women and their unborn babies. 
Professor Roland Hodler led a study that discovered infants in the Niger Delta are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers were living near an oil spill before becoming pregnant. (Roland Hodler/rhodler.net)

The study found that infants in Nigeria are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers were living near an oil spill before becoming pregnant. And that grim statistic applies even if the spill happened long before those women became pregnant. 

Roland Hodler is an economics professor at the University of St. Gallen who led the study. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Hodler about the research and why, despite the staggering numbers, he suspects little will change within the oil-rich region.

Professor Hodler, what was your reaction to the results of this study?

I was shocked. I mean we were expecting to find that oil spills would increase infant mortality but we didn't expect that the share of newborns who die within the first month would double. That was a surprise — a negative surprise. 
People evacuate their homes by boat, as they pass smoke and flames billowing from a burning oil pipeline belonging to the Shell Petroleum Development Company. (George Osodi/Associated Press)

Describe where these babies were born. What was the environment like?

So basically we are having a survey of many, many mothers. More than 2,500 mothers across Nigeria, in principle, that are all born within 10 kilometres from an oil spill that happened over the last eight years. So many of these mothers live in the Niger Delta but some also live along pipelines that go up north within the country. Many of them are living in rural areas. These are mostly relatively poor families. Then an oil spill happens and we compare the siblings that were born and conceived before the oil spill and those afterwards and we see that those born afterwards have these much higher mortality rates.

Crude oil consists of hydrocarbons and there are many hydrocarbons. Medical and clinical studies don't really know that much about what each of these hydrocarbon products would cause. But it's clear that local residents do have skin contact with crude oil. They drink contaminated water. They eat contaminated fish [and] crops. They may inhale smoke from fires. These all are likely to have severe, adverse health effects. 
Hodler says contaminants from oil spills are found in the fish along the Niger Delta. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

You mention that this infant mortality rate with babies who are born to women who were at some earlier point exposed to these oils spills — but not women exposed to them while they are pregnant. Is that correct?

Yes, that's what we find. More generally we find that oil spills that happen even three or four years before conception still have very large effects. So it seems that some of these negative health effects are building up over time — that it's actually worse to give birth in an area that has been exposed to an oil spill already, quite some time ago, rather than a place where it happens late in your pregnancy. It's much worse if it happens in the first trimester but if it happens later in the pregnancy it's not actually as bad.

What did you find with women who were exposed to oil spills while they were pregnant but hadn't had previous contact with them?

Within this group we found that if it's after the first trimester the effect is not terribly strong.

What does that tell you then about how these pollutants affect the unborn?

We think that it partly implies that the negative effects in the parents build up over time and there's also some evidence that actually the father's exposure to crude oil could increase the risk of genetic malformations in the unborn, which then could contribute to higher infant mortality rates. 
A woman walks along an oil pipeline near Shell's Utorogu flow station in Warri, Nigeria. (George Osodi/Associated Press)

So what does all this add up to? What does it tell you about what women are going through in the Niger Delta?

It is generally, I guess, a rather horrible place to live. There has been poverty, environmental pollution, conflict for many, many years. Maybe not exclusively, but mostly it's due to oil spills and in general the oil industry operating there and the oil industry not taking care of the local community, the Nigerian government not taking care of the local community.

And the international companies, how have they reacted? Do they take responsibility for the health conditions of these people who are living near the spills?

No, I think they don't. It's the Nigerian government that does not really properly enforce regulation and does not really properly control oil companies as the Nigerian government should. Then the international oil companies seem to make use of that and are less careful when it comes to maintenance and when it comes to cleaning up polluted areas. I find it actually quite shocking that they behave so differently than they would in say, Norway or Texas. 
The Bodo community in the oil-producing Niger Delta region sued Shell oil company, alleging that spills in 2008 and 2009 destroyed the environment and ruined their livelihoods. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you think it's possible that the companies and the government will respond to your study and actually do something?

I'm not so optimistic that it will change much on the ground, but I mean poverty, conflict, environmental pollution have been there for a long time and oil spills have been one of the major causes for a long time of all these ills and they both haven't done much. I mean, I would very much hope that they would respond, but I'm not extremely optimistic.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview Roland Hodler.

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