Cooking oil factory that won’t allow locals to catch a breath

A heavily polluted residential area in Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • PM2.5 composition depends on the source but can include harmful chemicals such as exhaust gas pollutants, soot from burning tyres or construction chemicals.   
  • National Environment Management Authority ordered Edible Oil Company to close all its operations until it complies with the law.

As the world marked the International Day of Air Quality on Monday, Ms Eileen Sidi and her two children aged four months and four years had nothing to celebrate. 

Ms Sidi and other residents of Eagle Plain estate, off Mombasa Road in Nairobi, are experiencing hell on earth because of pollution from a nearby cooking oil factory.

She rented a house in the estate in April, but is already considering moving out. Residents have to contend with dust and a choking greasy odour daily.

“My four-month-old baby constantly has red eyes and occasional diarrhoea. He also hiccups and burps a lot. One day I was very disturbed when he developed convulsions and it seemed as if he was being choked. I also suffer headaches. I have gone to hospital several times but doctors could not find any problem,” she said.

Being new in the estate, Ms Sidi thought she would acclimatise and the problem would soon go away. She later realised that she and all her neighbours were sailing in the same boat!

The estate has 260 households. Mr Chris Njuguna, the property manager, said people started settling there in 2006 but the pollution started in 2017. As the pollution levels increased and became more persistent, the residents wrote to the county government for intervention.

Atmospheric particles

The county approached the UN Environment Programme (Unep) which, together with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), installed an automatic real-time air quality sensor in January 2020.

The sensor measures very tiny particulate matter (PM) and carbon. PM2.5 are atmospheric particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, while PM10 refers to particles measuring less than 10 micrometers in diameter. Exposure to both is harmful.

“The air quality equipment is supposed to provide residents with pollution early-warning, identify pollution hotspots and encourage behaviour change among industries to avoid polluting,” said Dr Philip Osano, director of the SEI Africa Centre. Two sensors—one from Unep and another installed by Nema—have already picked up on high pollution levels of PM2.5.

According to Mr Sean Khan, programme manager for Unep’s Global Environment Monitoring System for Air Quality, if inhaled, PM2.5 (about 50 times smaller than the size of a strand of hair) enters the blood stream through the lungs.

PM2.5 composition depends on the source but can include harmful chemicals such as exhaust gas pollutants, soot from burning tyres or construction chemicals (asbestos).  In a letter dated May 21, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) ordered Edible Oil Company to close all its operations until it complies with the law.

Speaking to the Nation on Friday, Dr Robert Orina, Nema deputy director in charge of compliance, revealed that the pollutant is ash emanating from burning wood used to heat the boilers.

Palm oil

“The company uses palm oil to make cooking oil which itself does not release any harmful chemicals. We ordered the company closed and asked them to implement a control order. We have given them up to six months to fully comply with the law,” said Dr Orina.

Edibe Oil environmental manager Bishar Ahmed told the Nation that the company had now employed a full-time environment expert to assist in compliance.  As this is going on, Dr Orina said Eagle Plain estate residents would have a representative included in regular inspections of the factory.

However, in a telephone interview on September 3, estate chairman Edger Mwandawilo said after Nema ordered the factory reopened, residents who live closest to the factory are still bothered by the pollution.

Dr Orina explained that the manufacturer was allowed to reopen so that Nema could inspect the factory’s operating systems.

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