© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: Bacteria, acids, odour… the ‘pure water’ you drink is filled with impurities
By Hannah Ojo
In this first of a two-part series, HANNAH OJO reports the result of the first 15 laboratory-tested sachet water samples randomly selected in the five divisions of Lagos. From the presence of pathogenic bacteria to coliform, high microbial levels, acidity and objectionable odour, the hygiene and safety status of many of the brands of ‘pure water’ consumed by majority of Lagosians are questionable.
Lagosians may be killing themselves in installment through the sachet water they drink, an investigation by The Nation has revealed. For three months, 30 sachet water brands popularly known as ‘pure water’ were randomly selected in the five divisions of Lagos. A laboratory test contracted to the University of Lagos Consult Limited examined the physical, chemical and microbiological characteristics of each sample, which were coded to conceal their brand names. A registered public analyst and chartered chemist from the University of Lagos’s chemistry department issued an analyst’s certificate on each sample, in accordance with the Institute of Public Analysts of Nigeria (IPAN). The test ran from the month of May to August.
Out of the first batch of 15 sachet water samples analysed, only six met the recommended World Health Organisation (WHO) standards on potable water. The other nine showed high level of contaminants ranging from the presence of pathogenic bacteria and faecal coliform to high microbial levels, objectionable odour and low pH (acidity), which falls short of the minimum WHO pH parameter of 6.50.
The names of the tested sachet water are: Maja Water, Makus Water, Unilag Water, Haars Premium Water, Skord Water, Le Harmonious Water, David’s Key, Fizco Water, Dis Day Water, Clock Water, Austin Water, Vic Water, Ray Queen Water, Troven Water and Vida water.
Interpreting the health implications of the contaminants found in the tested water samples, Oluwole Adedeji, a professor of Chemical Pathology at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), stated that low pH in water represents acidity.
“pH is the concentration of hydrogen iron, which represents acidity. The neutral pH is seven. Anything below seven is acidic. Anything above seven is basic and denotes alkalinity,” he said.
The consultant also described odour as a product of metabolism, which shows some form of decay with grave implications for the human body if ingested through contaminated water.
Asked about the health implications of coliforms and other forms of pathogenic bacteria, he explained that the coliform count in potable water should not exceed a certain percentage.
“Our intestines have what is called the resident coliform. But when immunity is reduced, they become a problem. Adding more from outside means exposing the body to higher risks of toxic effects, especially when a person is stressed,” he said.
AT RISK OF DISEASES AND TERMINAL ILLNESSES
Beyond water-borne diseases such as typhoid, diarrhoea, cholera and hepatitis, drinking contaminated packaged water can also expose the body to carcinogenic agents. This happens when the polythene bag used to package the water is of low quality whilst being exposed to sunlight or stored in an unwholesome condition.
Findings revealed that the drive for profit often makes many sachet water manufacturers patronise makers of low-quality polythene bags, consequently causing dissolution of chemical into the water.
“Most of these bags have pores. They have holes, which may not be visible to the human eye, which allow some elements in the environment to diffuse gradually into the water. The chemicals can be very carcinogenic,” Adedeji said, linking poorly-packaged sachet water with cancer and other terminal illnesses associated with the lungs, liver and the heart.
With the acute water shortage in Lagos owing to the inability of the state’s Water Corporation to supply potable water to majority of residents, there is a high reliance on sachet water as a means of potable drinking water by over 70 per cent of the citizens.
In a poll conducted on Twitter by the reporter on the sources of potable drinking water for Lagosians, 44 per cent of respondents chose sachet water while 39 per cent chose boreholes. Another 12 per cent voted bottled water and the lowest vote stands at 6 per cent, representing those who source potable water from the Lagos State Water Corporation.
Majority of sachet water producers interviewed by The Nation source their water from boreholes. Although there are strident measures laid down by regulatory agencies such as the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission; enforcement to these standards is not often adhered to.
Kabir Ahmed, Chairman of the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission, an agency responsible for regulating water supply and wastewater management, told The Nation that indiscriminate sinking of boreholes and wells have negatively impacted on the quality of ground water in Lagos.
“Underground, we have four aquifers of water. As we speak, the topmost aquifer has been polluted by human activities,” Ahmed said. “As recently as 25 years ago, we used to fetch water from shallow wells in Lagos to drink. Now, water from that depth of 0-12m is not drinkable because it is practically impure.”
Lamenting the fact the use of substandard equipment, which drip oil into the underground water, by many borehole drillers in the state, Ahmed further stated that sinking of soak-away and pit latrines close to water source is responsible for the presence of coliform in some water sources across the state.
CHEAP DEATH CHANNEL
At N10 per sachet and N150 for 20 pieces, ‘pure’ water in Lagos appears a cheaper alternative to bottled water. A 75 cl bottled water sells between N50 and N100, depending on the brand. However, low-costing sachet water might be bait to a cheap death channel.
Data exclusively obtained by The Nation from the Lagos State Ministry of Health, showing the prevalence of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and cholera in the 25 general hospitals in Lagos, revealed higher rates of water-borne diseases in areas of the state faced with the most pressing cases of inadequate Water Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) facilities. Such areas include Badagry, Ikorodu, Epe and Orile Agege.
In 2014, General Hospital Orile Agege recorded a total of 1,690 cases of typhoid fever and 3,213 cases of diarrhoea. The Ijede Health Centre recorded the highest cases of cholera with 48, followed by General Hospital Epe with 15 cases. Also, in the year under review, The Massey Children Hospital recorded 2,612 cases of diarrhoea while the General Hospital, Epe, treated 893 patients out of a total diarrhoea prevalence rate of 12,413 in 2014.
Diarrhoea prevalence rate in Nigeria, put at 18.8 per cent, is one of the worst in sub-Sahara Africa.
Although data from 2015 and 2016 showed a slight reduction in the prevalence of water borne diseases in the state, local government areas such as Ikorodu, Epe and Badagry recorded highest prevalence rates.
The Orile Agege area, which follows closely, is one of the most densely populated urban slums in Lagos. Also, areas such as Epe and Badagry are urban isolated bubbles in Lagos where manufacturing of counterfeited sachet water is common. While the results of the tests of the sachet water samples selected in Ikorodu recorded cases of contamination with acidity, those of Epe and Badagry are being awaited and will be published in the second series of this report, on Saturday.
SHOCKING SOURCE OF UNHEALTHY SACHET WATER
The most shocking results of the scientifically tested sachet water samples was the one produced by UNILAG, which recorded the presence of coliform and high microbial load on two separate occasions. On May 15, our reporter purchased three sachets of UNILAG Water at the Iya Ibeji store located at the campus shuttle park. Another set of samples of sachet water, purchased from the same outlet on August 1 and subjected to laboratory tests, showed the presence of high microbial loads, with the analyst recommending that the water be treated to make it potable.
Confronted with the result, officials of the university debunked the claim, saying the tested water samples selected could be counterfeited products smuggled into the campus illegally.
Toyin Adebule, Public Relations Officer of the university, told our correspondent that the institution had been having a running battle with fake sachet water producers who counterfeited the university’s brand.
Adebule said: “On a weekly basis, our Department of Chemistry conducts quality assurance test on UNILAG Water. There are fake UNILAG Water sachets around, and the authority is clamping down on the perpetrators.”
When The Nation paid a visit to the UNILAG factory, a banner displaying good water storage practices at the door post greeted visitors.
The UNILAG Water factory, opened in 1995, was privatised recently and is now being managed by the University of Lagos Holding Company Limited.
Speaking with our correspondent, Oyewunmi Onanuga, General Manager of UNILAG Ventures, said: “We challenge anyone with claims to contamination of our water to buy directly from our factory and subject it to laboratory tests. Only last year, we had a case of adulterated UNILAG Water counterfeited by some people.
“We also emphasise to retailers that storage condition is important. If the water is left under the sun, on the bare floor or stored for a period exceeding validity, then there could be possibility of contamination.”
Another ironic twist also occurred with Troven Water, a sachet water brand sourced from the central cafeteria of the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa, Ikeja. Produced by Treasured Rocks Ventures, Troven Water, which also has a LWRC registration number, recorded a low pH of 6.20.
DAMMING VERDICT… PATHOGENIC FAECAL COLIFORM
The laboratory sample that recorded the most damming verdict was Fizco Water, produced by Akanji Ola and Sons, located in Mushin, a densely populated suburb of Lagos. A very popular brand in the area, the sample was selected at an open market in Mushin and taken to the lab on May 17. When the physical, chemical and microbiological characteristics were analysed, it showed the presence of pathogenic bacteria totalling 1.50x 103, exceeding the WHO limits of 1.0×101 in threefold. Also, the total coliform count was 3.0×101, a far cry from the WHO recommended 0.00 limits. The pH (acidity) was also high at a record 5.60 against the WHO recommended maximum of 6.50. Fizco Water is registered with NAFDAC registration number B1-5761L.
According to a study by the African Journal of Food Science and Technology, Faecal coliforms are bacteria found in the faecal material of humans and warm-blooded animals. Diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery and ear infections can be contracted from waters with high faecal coliform count, the study further revealed. Faecal coliform bacteria can come into surface water through improperly treated wastewater.
Last month, there was an outbreak of diarrhoea in Lagos State, leading to the death of two people died and the quarantining of 25. The incident occurred in Shomolu, the locale where Ray Queen Water, another brand contaminated with high acidity, was sourced. Findings show that Shomolu/Bariga is also a hub for counterfeited sachet water.
NAFDAC URGES PROPER STORAGE OF PACKAGED WATER
NAFDAC regulates and controls the manufacture and distribution of food, drugs, chemicals, medical devices and packaged water.
A summary of the results of the first 15 samples were directed to be submitted to the pharmaco-vigilance arm of the agency. Also, NAFDAC ran a cross check on the registration status of the selected water samples. A particular brand, Vic Pure Water, produced by Kroxxing Ventures in Abule-Egba, was not in the agency’s record of registered sachet water producers, even though the sachet has the registration number C1-4773L boldly printed on it. Another brand, Dis Day Water, was registered as Oniks Water while Austin Water produced in Fatai Atere has an expired registration status.
In a chat with The Nation, Abubakar Jimoh, NAFDAC’s director of Special Duties, cited issue of storage and counterfeiting as reasons why packaged water registered by the agency may turn out to be contaminated.
“Even if a product is registered but it is stored in bad condition, it will return as poison. Bottled water has a life span of one year and sachet water is two months,” Jimoh said.
“Secondly, the fact that a water company carries a NAFDAC registration number does not mean it is registered. We have arrested printers who printed labels for those adulterating fast-selling sachet water brands.
“Then the third layer is where the real owner of the product would be compliant when seeking registration but lower their standards once they get registered. We are also warming people not to buy packaged water from hawkers because of the exposure to the sun.”
HOW CORRUPTION AND MULTIPLE TAXATION AFFECT QUALITY OF SACHET WATER
Nothing gives the indication that Dame Clementina Ativie, the National President of the Association of Table Water Producers (ATWAP), is a forceful woman until she took hold of the microphone to state the grievances of packaged water producers in Lagos at a stakeholders’ meeting on taxation and revenue generation, convened by the state’s Ministry of Finance on August 1.
She lamented the fact that water producers were vulnerable to tax and revenue collectors from both local government and state levels. The development, she said, was forcing many water producers to relocate to suburbs where there is ease of doing business. She hinted that multiple taxation could be the reason for low-quality sachet water in the state.
“Consultants and touts are used to threatening us both at the local government and state levels,” she said.
“As I speak, we have over 20 people all going for revenue collection from water producers. More than six agencies alone from the state’s ministry of environment, each with an independent letter, with the Lagos state government letter-headed paper.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the money goes into private pockets because there are no receipts. When government says pay N5,000, the touts will tell you, ‘give us N2000 and forget the balance’. The N2,000 is not remitted to the state’s coffers.
“With the way things are going, those who can continue to pay will start cutting corners with the quality of water.”
NO RESPITE FOR THE POOR
On a hot sunny day in Maryland, Lagos, John Nwordi, a pharmacist carries a fast food branded polythene bag, heading back to work to have lunch after a hectic morning duty. Asked if he would wash down the food with sachet water, he gave a sharp retort: No!
“Gone are those days I drank sachet water,” he said. “These days, I don’t. Some of the sachet water I have bought in the past had funny outlook and sometimes you’d see substances flying inside the sachet.”
Not far away, a teenager and aspiring rapper, Micheal Odion, flags down a sachet water hawker. Asked if he’s not afraid of contamination, his response: “The blood of Jesus covers me!”
Odion’s response resonates with the thought of many Lagosians who hope for a spiritual force that will cover them from diseases after drinking sachet water. A purified water source is beyond the purchasing power of many Lagos residents.
Reporting for this story was supported by Code for Africa’s impactAFRICA fund and the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation.