Africans choking on toxic fuel in health 'ticking time bomb': lobby group

LAGOS (Reuters) - Much of Africa’s population is being choked by deadly fuels that are banned in Europe and the United States, a campaign group said on Friday, blaming the international trading firms that sell high-sulfur fuels to the continent.

Public Eye, a Swiss-based group that campaigns on fair trade, public health and other issues, said low quality standards that permit on average 200 times the sulfur content of Europe’s fuels allowed the sale of dirty-but-cheaper products that will “jeopardize the health of millions of people.”

“Swiss traders and others maximize profits by taking advantage of weak regulations to produce and sell harmful fuels,” Public Eye said. “This form of regulatory arbitrage ignores the serious risks to public health.”

In its report, “Dirty Diesel”, it calls on Swiss-based firms Trafigura, Addax & Oryx and Vitol, to sell only fuels that meet higher regulatory standards.

It described the issue as a “ticking time bomb” as cities grow across Africa and populations boom in places such as Nigeria’s Lagos and Ghana’s Accra.

Vitol said it complied with all government regulations, and could not control by itself the quality of fuel sold at the pump.

Puma Energy, partially owned by Trafigura, with retail stations and infrastructure across Africa, said it complied with national specifications and that selling fuel at higher specification was logistically impossible.

Addax & Oryx did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The African Refining Association (ARA), a non-profit group that represents the continent’s downstream sector, said that changing the actions of the trading houses alone would not fix the problem.

“If Swiss traders followed the report recommendation today their role would be filled by (possibly less reputable) traders from other nations,” the ARA said.

“The role of improving fuel quality in Africa clearly rests with African governments, not with the fuel suppliers.”

The ARA said it had been pressing governments in tandem with the United Nations Environment Programme.

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Morocco have increased fuel quality requirements.

But higher quality means higher costs, and with many countries facing severe shortages in public finances, they are wary of angering their populations with higher pump prices.

“The bottom line is that governments have competing priorities for available funds,” said David Bleasdale, of CITAC Africa Ltd, a consultancy that focuses on the African downstream sector.

Additional reporting by Julia Payne in London; Editing by John Stonestreet and Robin Pomeroy