Babies are much more likely to die in their first few weeks of life if their mothers live close to the site of an oil spill, according to new research. Scientists studied data on infant mortality and oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region – and describe their results as ‘shocking’.
It’s estimated that 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled into the Niger Delta every year. The environmental effects are clear to see – waterways running thick with the choking, black liquid; suffocated wildlife; dying mangroves. The effect on the people living in the delta is slowly coming to light.
The study by scientists at Switzerland’s University of Saint Gallen is shocking: babies born in the delta are twice as likely to die in the first month of life if their mothers were living close to an oil spill before they became pregnant. Roland Hodler is lead researcher.
“We looked at the birth histories of more than 2,500 Nigerian mothers," Hodler said. "And we compared siblings, some conceived before and some conceived after a nearby oil spill.”
The researchers compared geographical data on 6,600 recent oil spills, with results from the 2013 national demographic and health survey.
Their results show that even spills that happened five years before conception doubled the chances of babies dying after birth. However, spills that happened during pregnancy appeared to have little effect.
“We think the main reason is that some of the negative health effects are just building up over time," Hodler said. "So, if you think about these negative health effects, these are due to skin contact with crude oil, or to drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated fish or crops. And also inhaling smoke from fires.”
It’s thought unborn and newborn infants are more vulnerable as they haven’t built up natural defenses. The study suggests the effects of oil spills will be felt long into the future.
In 2015 the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell agreed to share the costs of the clean-up – an operation that the United Nations says will likely take 30 years. Critics say only a fraction of the money has been paid. Shell blames oil thieves for causing many of the spills.
The Nigerian government did not respond to requests for comment.