When Cancer Flows From Oil Wells

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crude oil Naisan Naingisan, 25, from Korr village in Marsabit District has a large wound that started as a growth on her left leg. She cannot afford to go to hospital.

Could death caused by cancer be looming behind the expensive prospecting for oil going on in Kenya?

A survey in some remote villages where foreign companies sunk oil wells in Marsabit District almost two decades ago reveals shocking statistics of villagers who have contracted throat cancer and others who have died of it.

The new claims are likely to turn the spotlight on international oil firms, which are currently engaged in the search for oil at the Kenyan Coast and elsewhere.

The cases in Northern Kenya raise suspicion that toxic substances brought to the surface by exploration that digs deep into the bowels of the earth, and failure to sweep or destroy the substances could be causing cancer.

Disease and death stalk poor villagers

The shocking observation from a region where oil exploration caused excitement in the late 80s will call environment bodies to attention.

At one time in 1988, former President Moi hinted at the possibility of Kenya striking oil in the northern regions.

Moi and then Energy Minister Nicholas Biwott visited one of the drilling sites, at Kargi, in Marsabit District where a foreign company known as Amoco was prospecting and inaugurated one of the wells.

The Standard returned to Kargi last week and found that the excitement of the expected gush of oil then has since turned into misery as disease and death stalk poor villagers.

The Standard team tracked down the cancer patients from several villages in the district, where leaders and health workers say the killer disease has reached "epidemic proportions" in the last decade.

Uniformity and duration of disease

In Kargi village, about 70km from Marsabit town, residents said their lives were turned upside down soon after an oil firm drilled a well in search of deposits in 1988.

Two years later, thousands of cattle died on a single day after drinking water from a well near the drilling site.

It is only in the last decade that the effects of possible environmental pollution are being felt by humans. The Government has since closed the well and sunk an alternative one.

However, no specific study of the crisis specifically has pointed fingers at any oil firm, but experts say circumstantial evidence is enough to call for a major study to establish proof.

Interviews with health workers, villagers, patients' families and available records establish a pattern where most of those affected suffer from cancer of the aesophagus and the digestive system.

A consultant surgeon Dr Hussein Alkama, who has been treating cancer patients from Marsabit, said the uniformity and duration when the disease started occurring indicates that it likely was caused by substances in the patients' diet, drinking water or atmosphere.

Too poor to seek treatment

Alkama said last month alone, he handled three patients from Marsabit suffering from cancer of the aesophagus, referred commonly as throat cancer.

"This ailment has reached epidemic proportions," Alkama said. "I suspect people have been exposed to dangerous chemicals. These cases were not there before oil exploration took place."

Records at the Marsabit District Hospital show it handled 29 suspected throat cancer cases in 2004 and last year. Of these, 20 - or 69 per cent - affected the mouth and the digestive system.

The figures seem to confirm Alkama's concerns that the ailment was caused by substances in the patients' diet or drinking water or in the atmosphere.

Marsabit Hospital's Dr Solomon Sambu, however, said the figures do not reflect the real picture in the district, where a big chunk of the population lives hundreds of kilometers away from hospitals and are too poor to seek treatment.

But he downplayed the gravity of the disease. He said "cancer is not a major killer in the district."

Oil drilling and exploration itself produces dangerous substances

Local nomads said since the death of livestock, they have abandoned large swathes of precious grazing land near the well, fearing it is contaminated.

Oil drilling and exploration itself produces dangerous substances, including radioactive material lodged in underground rocks and is a cause of concern for environmentalists worldwide.

The Kenyan law requires oil exploration firms to clean up the environment after completing their activities.

Without a study on the cause of the ailments people are living in fear and many questions remain unanswered.

Says Alkama, "the questions is, what is peculiar to people in that area? What has happened to bring about this disease, which was not known here 10 years ago? It is possible that some chemicals could have contaminated the water table, which is very close to the ground in some areas."

Last month, North Horr MP, Ukur Yatani told Parliament cancer had become a major killer in northern Kenya and claimed rogue companies had dumped radioactive waste there. Yatani is also the Assistant Minister for Science and Technology.

State denied dumping claims

In Parliament, Health Assistant Minister Enoch Kibunguchy said the Ministry had sent a surgeon to the hospital to check the spread of cancer of the gullet, but denied dumping claims.

A nurse at the Kargi Catholic Dispensary, Ms Asunta Galgitele, said it received at least two suspected cases of throat cancer every month. The dispensary serves a small village population.

Mr Soko Godana, from Bubisa village in North Horr constituency, gave the names of five patients from the area who suffer from suspected cancer of the esophagus, all acquired around the same time.

Many villagers who live in far-flung manyatta where poverty is widespread, get sick and die without even seeking diagnosis or treatment.

source - The East African standard 

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