• Public Eye, a Swiss Non-Governmental Organisation has released a report alleging that Swiss commodity trading companies are taking advantage of weak fuel standards in Africa to produce, deliver and sell diesel and gasoline, which is damaging to people’s health. This low quality blend of fuel made from mixing toxic intermediate petroleum products is being called “African Quality” fuel. Public Eye’s report was compiled after three years of research and highlights the Western contribution to outdoor air pollution in Africa. Countries in West Africa have been the hardest hit with foreign companies exploiting their weak fuel standards.

    Selling Respiratory Diseases to Africa

    Hiding behind big brands like Shell and Puma, Vitol, Trafigura and small Swiss companies have been identified as the major players in the unethical business of selling “African Quality” fuel. The major problem identified by Public Eye is the level of sulphur in the fuel. Sulphur is known to destroy emissions control technologies in vehicles and for its negative health effects. Rob de Jong, the Head of the UN Environmental Programme transport programme says, “So if you buy a vehicle that’s a couple of years old and import it into some of the African countries, the technology in there – sensors and filters – all gets spoilt, and these cars, which are potentially very, are destroyed in a couple of tanks, and for the next 20 years will be belching smoke. It’s important to understand the tragedy of this.” The high use of second-hand cars does not help matters. Emissions of particulate matter from these damaged cars in turn causes such diseases as cancer. The sulphur is emitted from the cars as sulphur dioxide and its deadly combination with other toxic gases causes chronic bronchitis and aggravates asthma among many other adverse effects on respiratory health. In 2012, World Health Organisation classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic. This year, the World Bank released a report to the effect that 1 in 10 deaths can be attributed to air pollution making it the fourth leading fatal health risk worldwide behind metabolic risks, dietary risks and tobacco smoke. By buying this fuel, Western African countries is buying its way to the grave.

    Complacent Governments, Exploitative Companies

    Regulation of sulphur levels in fuel in the countries worst hit has been weak and the Western companies have exploited those weaknesses. Public Eye conducted tests on many diesel samples in Western African countries and with the exception of Congo, sulphur levels were at least 100 times the European limit and more than half were 200 times the European limit. The report says, “This is no coincidence: it demonstrates a deliberate strategy to convert weak regulation into healthy profit.” In the pursuit of a healthy profit, healthy Africans are simply not a priority for these companies.

    In Europe, the maximum sulphur content of diesel has been set at 10 ppm (parts per million) while in some African countries it is as high as 5,000 ppm. The less strict specifications of African countries in relation to sulphur, polyaromatics and benzene have provided the Swiss companies room to make fuels for Africa using cheap, dirty and harmful blendstocks. Public Eye called this “Blend-dumping”. Weak governmental policies are therefore partly to blame for the health crisis Africa is having and will continue to have if action is not taken. Ethics are a thing foreign to these foreign firms and without compulsion, nothing will change. In East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda have a new low sulphur specification of 50 ppm. The new specifications are however said to be of no effect to pricing especially in Kenya where the country is still buying fuel for the same price of the dirtier 500 ppm. The report says this could mean Kenyans were paying more than they were supposed to for the 500 ppm fuel they had before. Governments should therefore compel companies to disclose margins of profits since it seems there are extortionate pricing models. The argument of pricing therefore falls away. Toxin levels can be reduced without increasing the price of the fuel. Governments should not be scared away by the potential of higher prices; the East African team has led the way and proved there is nothing to fear.

    Public Eye says if governments tighten the screws and lower their specifications, they could prevent 25,000 premature deaths in 2030 and around 100,000 in 2050. African countries should set the standard at 10 ppm like European nations. Failure to adopt a tougher stance will result in more deaths. The report also recommended that Swiss trading companies stop abusing African low fuel quality standards and appreciate that their mode of operation is killing Africans. Profits should not be regarded as more important than African lives.