What is wrong with Kerosene lamps?

Nov 07, 2018|Aisha Salaudeen

Just over a billion people across the globe live without steady access to electricity and 93 million are Nigerians. Despite possessing some of the world’s largest deposits of coal, oil and gas, Nigeria generates less power than a single dam in Washington, United States.

Nigeria generates 3,000-4,000 Megawatts (MW) of electricity on average, though its generation and distribution capacity are much higher. This is insufficient to cater to the entire country and some regions suffer more; according to the World Bank, the electricity access rate is just 34% in rural areas compared to 84% in urban areas.

As a result, nearly 10 million Nigerians still light their homes through Kerosene lamps when the sun goes down. We are the 6th largest consumer of kerosene in the world, with total imports of two billion litres of kerosene each year.

But using kerosene is an expensive and dangerous source of lighting.


Air pollution

When burned in appliances like lanterns for lighting, Kerosene emits tons of dangerous air pollutants like black carbon, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. All these organic compounds are harmful to people and the environment.

Inhaling carbon monoxide reduces the ability of the blood to transmit oxygen to different parts of the body and increases the risk of narrowed or blocked blood vessels. This means that families who use kerosene lamps are more at risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases and blood pressure. They are also more vulnerable to getting respiratory illnesses like the flu, asthma, and pleura—especially in children.

Black carbon is arguably even more dangerous. Like carbon monoxide, it disrupts the respiratory system. At least 136 million households in Nigeria are affected by Household Air Pollution (primarily caused by black carbon), leading to 128,500 deaths annually.

But black carbon emissions do not just affect people, but also have far-reaching effects on the environment. It decimates ecosystems and is the 2nd leading contributor to climate change in the world.

When kerosene is burnt in wick lamps, 9% of it is converted to particulate matter like black carbon which can stay in the atmosphere for weeks. In the long run, it can cause lake acidification and where mixed with moisture—acid rain. And if it is carried by wind or water, it depletes the nutrients in the soil and affects vegetation.


Health and safety hazards

The greatest dangers with kerosene lighting in Nigeria is the accompanying health and safety risk. One of these—incredibly—is accidentally ingesting kerosene, which is so common that it is the leading cause of child poisoning in Africa. 

Nigerians usually store kerosene in empty containers and bottles of soft drinks, making it easy for children to access and mistake for something else. Ingesting kerosene can result in pneumonia, respiratory illness, and general food poisoning.

Meanwhile, as kerosene is flammable, it is responsible for a lot of burns and fire damage in Nigeria; in fact, nearly a third of all burn cases treated in Nigerian hospitals can be linked to kerosene. Kerosene lamps are often used in confined spaces where they can easily be knocked over—starting a fire. Another common cause of fire is when kerosene is added to a lantern or lamp when it is already lit.

While many lamps or lanterns come with covers or grills to protect users, the heat from the grill sometimes burns, and with children running around, wounds from lantern burns are almost unavoidable. Thousands of Nigerians, particularly women between 18-45 and young children, are maimed each year by kerosene lamps. One in ten of these dies as a result.

Kerosene use exposes Nigerians to many other illnesses or forms of harm. You are nearly ten times as likely to be diagnosed with tuberculosis if you use kerosene lighting. Cataracts is twice as common in people who use kerosene lighting.

The list goes on, but Nigerians keep using kerosene because they don’t have many viable alternatives and federal subsidies on petrol keep the product relatively cheap.


What is the alternative?

We’ve seen how damaging the use of kerosene can be for the environment and its users. And while it may look like the best way of cutting down kerosene use is by expanding access to the electricity grid, this is unlikely to work. First of all, Nigeria’s electricity woes have lasted decades, and there is little to suggest that they will change significantly soon. In addition, grid connectivity may not be as cost or time-effective given the number and location of people using kerosene. 

In recent years, more sustainable lighting alternatives have emerged. Chief among them is solar energy. Organisations like Power For All and Solar Sisters are committed to suppressing the use of kerosene lanterns by introducing solar-powered lamps. At the moment, Power for All is opening up the market for solar alternatives through public awareness programs and policy advocacy in Nigeria.

Considering the large percentage of Nigerians who make use of Kerosene lamps, it will take a while to sensitise them on its disadvantages. So far, Solar Sisters, a social enterprise focused on renewable energy, has sold nearly 50,000 solar products to rural communities.

Whether solar lamps, household lights or phone charging units, these alternative forms are cheaper and easily accessible in comparison to kerosene.

Some solar lamps can go for ₦10,000 naira and last for years, clearly a cheaper alternative to buying kerosene weekly. And beyond cost, solar energy is cleaner and safer, with many of the dangers of kerosene lighting—emissions, burns, etc.—largely eliminated.

The upfront cost of solar generation can be much higher, and many solar panels remain too cumbersome or complicated for use in rural areas, but these issues pale in comparison to the dangers of kerosene lighting.

According to the World Bank, regular exposure to kerosene fumes can be likened to smoking two packs of cigarettes each day. In Nigeria, our poor access to the electricity grid and the lack of cheap lighting alternatives in rural areas has created a generation of unwitting smokers. Brace yourself for the health—and death—toll. 


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