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  • Is crude oil killing children in Nigeria?

    When thunder crackles in the Niger Delta, like the sound of a short burst of fire, the pounding rain is never far behind it.

    Caught in the downpour in the town of Kogbara Dere, known as K Dere, a woman runs to the shelter of a restaurant by the side of the road. The plastic bottles of homemade petrol she was selling are beaten off their wooden perch by the heavy rain.

    The smell of petrol rises up from the ground and hangs briefly in the air before being washed down a mucky lane. Following the shiny oil slick, through a warren of small concrete houses, we arrive at the home of Love Sunday.

    Village of tears

    Love gave birth to her fifth child just over a month ago. For two weeks everything was fine.

    "When I had the baby there was no problem," she says. "But then I was carrying him in my arms. He took three breaths and was gone.

    "I'm still mourning, I weep every day."

    Love doesn't know how her baby died because she didn't see a doctor. But she's not the only one in her village dealing with this grief.

    Patience Sunday and her husband Batom, who live just on the other side of town, were also expecting their first child in October.

    "When the baby was first born he wasn't breathing but then the nurse was taking care of him and he started to breathe," she says. "They took the baby to the house to bathe him and the baby collapsed."

    He only lived a few hours.

    For Barinaadaa Saturday and Chief Bira Saturday, it's a similar story.

    "I gave birth and the child died at the same time," says Barinaadaa. She still has a picture of her child framed in her home. He's wearing a blue and pink woolly hat and looks like he could be sleeping.

    It happened in 2014 but Barinaada and her husband haven't been able to have a child since. Their farm sits on the site of the last big spill in K Dere, which happened that same year.

    Barinaadaa Saturday and Chief Bira Saturday sit with a picture of their babyImage captionBarinaadaa Saturday and Chief Bira Saturday's baby boy died three years ago

    "Our farming area is always deep with this oil, when you go there you can perceive the odour," says Chief Bira Saturday, who has suffered from asthma since the spill.

    "The doctor said it was the odour of this oil that we are perceiving that damaged the baby in my womb," his wife added.

    Patience Sunday heard something similar from doctors while she was pregnant.

    "The doctor said I should not go out in the rain or use rain water because the rain water contains oil," she says.

    Each of the parents we spoke to named one or two others who also lost young babies.

    Hidden killer?

    A recent report by a group of scientists at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland may hold a clue to what happened.

    It found that children born within 10km (six miles) of an oil spill were twice as likely to die in their first month.

    oil spillImage captionThe region has been affected by numerous oil spills in the last decade

    The research is based entirely on data.

    Its writers took two sets of data - the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor, which records the time and location of oil spills, and the Demographic Health Survey, which has records of the birth histories of Nigerian mothers.

    They looked at children conceived after a spill and compared their health outcomes with siblings who were born before the spill.

    By only looking at siblings, the research rules out many other variables like poverty, diet or health of the parents.

    It found those conceived after the spill were twice as likely to die in their first month.

    "The effect was much stronger than I expected - larger and longer lasting," says Roland Hodler, professor of economics at the University of St Gallen and co-author of the report.

    "We found that even if there is an oil spill three or four years prior to conception, it still has a strong effect on a future new-born."

    The report doesn't look at what exactly might be causing these deaths. There is surprisingly little research into the effect that crude oil exposure from on-shore spills has on human health.

    When crude oil spills on land, it seeps into the soil, the air and the water table.

    It releases certain harmful chemicals - such as benzene and toluene. Benzene is a known carcinogen while toluene can cause kidney and liver damage.

    A sign saying do not drink, fish or swim in the waterImage captionIn places, the water has been contaminated

    Many on-shore spills also cause fires, which released toxic fumes that can cause respiratory problems.

    "When the respiratory tracts are blocked by these particulates, we see health issues like asthma, bronchitis, emphysema. We have drowsiness, loss of concentration, these are related," says Dr Vincent Weli, an air pollution meteorologist at the University of Port Harcourt."For pregnant women, if they are exposed to open crude and they inhale these emissions, it will affect the forming of the foetus."

    It's impossible to know if oil was the cause of the death of the children whose parents we met.

    But it's not hard to believe this could be happening in K Dere.

    A few kilometres from the homes of the parents we met is the site of an old spill. Almost as far as you can see the rich, green land is scarred with patches of scorched, dark earth. It's littered with glistening pools of crude oil, unmistakeable in its gloopy, sticky, blackness.

    A Shell oil inlet manifold stands at Kegbara-Dere, in the famous Nigerian oil-producing Ogoniland, which hosts the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Nigeria's Rivers State on June 24, 2010.Image copyrightAFPImage captionOil firms are accused of causing pollution in Ogoniland

    There are hundreds of oil spills every year in Nigeria from pipelines belonging to different companies but the spills in this area came from pipes run by Royal Dutch Shell.

    Shell has accepted responsibility for two spills in K Dere - in 2009 and 2012 - but when approached about the contents of this report, it said it had no comment

    Of the 2009 spill, it says efforts have been made to clean up. But it says they were inhibited by "the wider access challenges in Ogoniland".

    K Dere is in the Ogoniland region of Rivers State, where residents have long protested about the environmental effects of the oil industry.

    Shell also said the National Oil Spill Detection and Remediation Agency, a government agency, certified the area where remediation work took place and that compensation was paid to those affected.

    Of the 2012 spill, Shell says no compensation was paid because "no third party was affected".

    In relation to both spills, it said "a detailed review is under way to close out any residual issues as quickly as possible".

    Legally it is the responsibility of the company managing the pipeline to clean up any leak within 24 hours - that means the oil companies and their government partners.

    Shell has long claimed that its unpopularity with local people in Ogoniland has made it difficult for clean-up workers to operate safely and has blamed many spills on criminals.

    A man wearing a T-shirt advocating the boycott of Shell oil stands next to another carrying a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa during a rally on the Port Harcourt highway 10 November 2005Image copyrightAFPImage captionShell has faced deep hostility in Nigeria's oil-producing areas

    "The Nigerian government has failed to regulate these oil companies," says Mr Hodler.

    "The same international oil companies behave very differently in Nigeria than they do in Norway or Texas."

    But local people have a part to play in all of this too.

    Including those - such as the woman near Love Sunday's house - who are involved in "artisanal refining" - selling petrol made from crude that is stolen from ruptured pipelines.

    Whatever - and whoever - the cause of these spills is not the focus of this new research.

    But what it does highlight is that there is an urgent need for more investigation into what this oil is doing to people's health.

    Until that happens hundreds, maybe even thousands, more children could be at risk. And many more parents, dealing with the loss of a young baby, will be left without answers.

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  • Do baby boxes really save lives?

    It's been claimed that Finland's baby boxes, given to every newborn in the country, help reduce cot deaths. But what evidence is there that they lower infant mortality rates, asks Elizabeth Cassin.


    In June 2013, the BBC News website published an article entitled Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes. It's been viewed over 13 million times and sparked global interest in the idea.


    The article explained Finland's 75-year-old policy of giving every pregnant mother a cardboard box filled with baby products, such as clothes, sleeping bag, nappies, bedding and a mattress, and how the box itself could be used as a bed.


    One reason it attracted such attention is that Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world - two deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with a global rate of 32 in 1,000, according to the UN.


    Over the past three years, companies selling the boxes have popped up in the US, Finland and the UK.


    And they're incredibly popular not just with individuals but - more significantly - with governments. The promise of lower infant mortality rates is something to aim for.


    But if you stop and think about it for a minute, this is a bold claim. How does getting a baby to sleep in a box and a few baby items bring down infant mortality rates?


    In theory, the boxes offer a safe sleep space for babies.

    Baby asleep in baby boxImage copyrightALAMY

    There are lots of reasons why babies die, from health problems to accidents. But there's one in particular that these boxes have been thought to help reduce - sudden infant death syndrome (Sids), also referred to as "cot death", is the unexpected and unexplained death of an apparently healthy baby.


    Although it's difficult to always understand what causes these deaths, there are environmental factors that increase the risk - including being around tobacco smoke, getting tangled in bedding, or sleeping alongside parents - especially if parents have been drinking.

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    Find out more

    Close up of baby sleepingImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

    • More or Less is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service
    • Download the More or Less podcast
    • More stories from More or Less

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    In the early 90s, many Western countries introduced Back to Sleep campaigns, when it was discovered that babies who sleep on their tummies are more vulnerable to Sids. This led to the last significant reduction in countries like the US and UK.


    "Since we had the dramatic decline of Sids in the 90s, we're now in a situation where the remaining Sids is much harder to try to alleviate," says Prof Helen Ball, director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab in the UK. "And so people are looking for new interventions, new changes to social care practices that might specifically help some of the more vulnerable families."


    Click to see content: infant_mortality

    Putting a baby in a box, and keeping the box near a parent, could prevent some of the hazardous scenarios.


    But it's important to understand that nearly all countries have seen a dramatic reduction in infant mortality over the last century. In 1900, about 15% of babies in Europe would have died in their first year. Now it's less than 0.4%.


    And Finnish academics and health professionals have been keen to point out that there is some misunderstanding about the box scheme.

    baby lying asleep on mattress, face upImage copyrightGOOGLE

    To understand how policy changed in Finland, we need to go back to 1938.


    Although infant mortality rates had been falling across Europe, Finland's rate was higher than their Nordic neighbours. The government decided to offer baby boxes to low-income women.


    But the women didn't just get a box. The boxes were introduced "at the same time that the pre-natal care was started", says Prof Mika Gissler, a statistician at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.


    Women had to attend clinics early on in their pregnancy to qualify for the maternity package. Their health could then be monitored throughout and after the pregnancy.


    Legislation in 1944 made it a legal obligation for municipalities to provide maternity and child health clinics. That year, only 31% of pregnant mothers had received prenatal care. The figure jumped to 86% the following year.


    In 1949, the care package, including the baby boxes, was offered to all women.


    "Then there was a big change from home birth to hospital birth," says Gissler. "We had the national health insurance system introduced very late in the 60s."


    One of Gissler's colleagues, Prof Tuovi Hakulinen, says that to her knowledge, there is no direct link between the baby box and infant mortality rates.

    Finnish mother and babyImage copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionA combination of factors are behind better infant health in Finland

    And that if you look at the decline in infant mortality, the thing that's driving it more than anything else is a combination of advancement in medicine, vaccinations, nutrition, hygiene and increased prosperity.


    Finland has reliable Sids data for the past three decades - and the rate is low. But the significant reduction in deaths has been in congenital anomalies and other diseases.


    And yet one of the leading baby box companies sells its products as an essential gift for new parents, claiming studies have proven the link.


    I asked the company if I could see these studies, but they said that studies showing positive results had not been published yet. Experts say that there are no studies showing the efficacy of baby boxes.


    Countries across the world have been trialling variations on the Finnish box, including Canada, Ireland, and Scotland - with many tying in additional education for parents.


    And while looking at the possibilities the baby box is interesting, there a bigger factors at play.

    Baby asleep in pink linenImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

    One country where the baby box idea has received a lot of attention is the United States - because they are struggling with poor infant mortality rates - six per 1,000 births, which makes them comparable to Poland and Hungry, below the level you'd expect based on their income.


    Prof Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, compared data from the US with various European countries, primarily Finland and Austria.


    She says the US does fairly well in the first month of life - but from a month to a year, "you can see the mortality rate in the US kind of accelerating away from the other countries in that period".


    When looking at women with a college degree - a marker for relatively high income - infant mortality rates were low and similar to the same groups in Finland and Austria.


    "What we see is that well-off women in Finland, well off women in the US, are very, very similar," she says. "The difference is well-off women in Finland and less-educated women in Finland have very similar infant mortality profiles. Whereas that is not true in the US."

    Baby box scheme in MexicoImage copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionFinland's scheme has been copied in other countries, such as Mexico

    But it's not clear from their research what specifically causes these deaths - because there are many things which make the US different, such as their health system. Also, most countries in Europe have a pretty robust home visiting programme after birth. That's not something that has uniformly been true in the US.


    "What often comes along with the boxes is some additional contact with somebody," says Oster. "It may be the healthcare assistant, a nurse, a social worker.


    "The box alone doesn't seem likely to matter."


    The baby boxes are hugely popular in Finland, but they are emblematic of a wider health care system.


    Governments and individuals should not see the box as solely effective, without improving care and education for parents also.


    After all, there are countries with the same infant mortality rate as Finland, such as Iceland, Estonia and Japan, that do not have baby box schemes.


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  • Look! Up in the sky! It's a new kind of cloud - #Asperitas

    Looking up, you might be thinking you're under a roiling, stormy sea.

    But what you're looking at is a unique and breathtaking meteorological phenomenon. And today, World Meteorological Day, it's being officially recognized: asperitas cloud.
    This is how the new edition of the International Cloud Atlas describes it, in almost poetic form:
    "Asperitas is characterized by localized waves in the cloud base, either smooth or dappled with smaller features, sometimes descending into sharp points, as if viewing a roughened sea surface from below."

    What's in a name?

    Asperitas comes from the Latin word for roughness.
    In 2006, the Cloud Appreciation Society, a group of weather enthusiasts based in the UK, received the first images of the distinctive cloud from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A few years later, they proposed the cloud be included in the atlas. That would be a huge coup since the atlas is widely used to train meteorologists from the time it was first published in the late 19th century.
    "When we know the name of something, we began to know it in a different way and when we began to know it, we began to care about it," Gavin Pretor-Pinney said at a World Meteorological Day ceremony in Geneva.

     A big deal

    Adding a new cloud type is rare. The World Meteorological Organization had not updated the atlas in 30 years, until now.
    "It is a classic example of citizen science, in which observations by the general public, enabled by the technology of smartphones and the Internet, have influenced the development this most official of classification systems," a news release on the Society's website reads.

    View image on Twitter
    Alongside the striking cloud formations, a few other classifications have been added to the new edition. Some of them are "volutus," a roll cloud, "contrail," a vapour trail that is sometimes produces by airplanes and more common phenomena like rainbows, halos and hailstones, according to the foreword of the atlas.


    Asperitas (formerly known as Undulatus asperatus) is a cloud formation first popularized and proposed as a type of cloud in 2009 by Gavin Pretor-Pinney of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Added to the International Cloud Atlas in March of 2017, it is the first cloud formation added since cirrus intortus in 1951. The name translates approximately as "roughness".

    The clouds are closely related to undulatus clouds. Although they appear dark and storm-like, they almost always dissipate without a storm forming . The ominous-looking clouds have been particularly common in the Plains states of the United States, often during the morning or midday hours following convective thunderstorm activity. As of June 2009 the Royal Meteorological Society is gathering evidence of the type of weather patterns in which asperitas clouds appear, so as to study how they form and decide whether they are distinct from other undulatus clouds.

    History of observations

    Margaret LeMone, a cloud expert with the National Center for Atmospheric Research has taken photos of asperatus clouds for 30 years, and considers it in her own words, a new cloud type.

    On June 20, 2006 Jane Wiggins took a picture of asperatus clouds from the window of a downtown office building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In March 2009, Chad Hedstroom took a picture of asperatus clouds from his car near Greenville Ave in Dallas, Texas. Soon after taking it, Wiggins sent her Cedar Rapids image to the Cloud Appreciation Society, which displayed it on its image gallery. Wiggins' photograph was posted on the National Geographic website on June 4, 2009. On July 23, 2013, Janet Salsman photographed them along the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada. On October 28, 2013, an Asperitas cloud layer formed over Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On July 7, 2014 asperatus clouds in Lincoln, Nebraska, have been caught on tape by Alex Schueth. One of the most dramatic formations was captured by Witta Priester in New Zealand in 2005. The photo was posted by NASA as the Astronomy Picture of the Day and shows great detail, partly because sunlight illuminates the undulating clouds from the side.

    Since 2006, many similar cloud formations have been contributed to the gallery, and in 2009 Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society, began working with the Royal Meteorological Society to promote the cloud type as an entirely new type in and of itself.

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