February 1st, 2015 I sat across the Senior Environmental Specialist of the World Bank (Nigeria) and he explained what a great choice I had made in my field of study. As our conversation gradually came to a close, he casually mentioned what he was working on. “I am currently working on PCBs” . “Nigerians have started using transformer oil to fry food, because it lasts longer.
We are not the only ones, as other African countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe etc. have also been doing it. They go as far as going to the transformers to get the oil out. Most of the food vendors that use it in Nigeria go to areas where there is a transformer and pour the left-over from the drums.” He said. I froze, maybe I didn’t hear him well, I thought. Did he just say transformer oil?
To think that he was actually referring to transformer oil that contains PCBs made my stomach churn, anyone familiar with this word would know that it is a danger word.
PCBs are so dangerous and the use was banned in the US in 1979 because of its highly toxic nature, and the risk to the human health and the environment. Polychlorinated Biphenyls popularly called PCBs are organic chlorine compound which are used as lubricants or coolants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment’s. Although PCB transformers are no longer used in most parts of the world, it is still very much present in Nigeria.
PCBs have very high resistance and are known to accumulate and stay long in the environment. It is understandable that a lot of food vendors have bowed to the pressure brought by economic recession, but it is highly unacceptable that they would go as far as using this type of oil to fry. Examples of food items they fry it with in Nigeria are: Bean cake (Akara), Plantain chips, Potato chips, fried yam, and chicken etc.
It is bad enough that most of these food items are sold in dirty environments, but to think that the very oil used is carcinogenic (causes cancer) shows there is a cause for alarm. The physical and chemical properties of transformer oil make it highly undetectable when used, it appears as pale yellow just like the normal vegetable oil and is as vicious. It has no smell or taste and that is why it is easy for it to pass as vegetable oil.
Efforts have been made by several environmental agencies but it is still not enough as thousands consume food items that cause harm to the health of individuals. This is the very reason awareness is very paramount, like the saying goes: better safe than sorry.
Here are some facts about PCBs in transformer oil:
- PCBs are man-made chemicals. Made up of about 209 chlorinated compounds ranging from oily liquids to waxy solids
- It was banned by the United States Congress in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001
- Does not disintegrate easily, thereby, last long in the human body, animals and the environment i.e Bio-accumulation
- It is highly carcinogenic
- Transformer oil is odorless and non-flammable
- Undetectable when mixed with vegetable oil
- PCBs are found in contaminated plants, crops and fish
- PCBs are commonly found in the brain, fatty tissues, liver and skin of humans contaminated with it
- It is transmittable, i.e. from mother to child through breast milk or the placenta
- They cause abnormalities in birds, fish and other animals
- Nigeria is expected to be in full compliance with the Stockholm Convention by eliminating PCBs by 2025
Health effects of PCBs contamination include:
- Irritation to nose, lungs and skin
- Birth effects in babies
- Low sperm count
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Altered sex organs
- Premature puberty
- Lowered IQ
- Mental development issues
- Various types of cancers e.g. thyroid
Although it is always difficult to resist the chicken, kara or fried yam on the road, it is important to be aware of the health consequences of eating just anywhere as you might just be a victim of eating fried food made with transformer oil.
Here’s what you can do to be safe:
- Avoid eating fried foods from just anywhere; be sure of their credibility
- Buy your vegetable oil from reputable stores
- If a certain smell makes you uneasy, it might have been mixed with something else. Don’t eat
- If there is a transformer close by, it is highly possible. Don’t eat
- Inform your family and friends. Be safe
- Be like me! Totally avoid eating fried food from the road side or in contaminated areas
If you see signs indicating the use of transformer oil by food vendors, report to environmental agencies such as LASEPA (Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency)
Photo Credit: Michael Spring | Dreamtime