Zobo (hibiscus) and kunu drinks mean different things to many Nigerians depending on where they belong in the social strata in the society. While the rich may consume the popular drinks for pleasure or because of their natural medical benefits, they serve as alternatives to expensive meals for poor Nigerians – most of whom survive on less than a dollar per day.
This report follows an alarm raised by a concerned Nigerian, Vivian Nuhu who narrated her experience to Vanguard about an incident she witnessed when she paid a visit to a sick friend in one of Nigeria's hospitals.
Ms. Nuhu told Vanguard how she had visited a friend (name withheld) with tuberculosis to sympathize with him when he handed her a plastic bottle filled with bodily fluid which apparently was a mixture of saliva and blood to dispose off at the hospital's dumpsite.
She said, after she had disposed of the bottle, to her amazement, as she turned around to go back to the ward where her sick friend was, she saw a woman who, obviously, was waiting by the corner for her to drop the container, rushed to the dump, emptied the very plastic bottle she had dropped a few seconds ago, and tucked the bottle into a polythene bag which was already holding a dozen of plastic bottles.
When Ms. Nuhu accosted her to find out why she picked used plastic bottles from dumps, the elderly-looking woman, who, according to Ms. Nuhu should be in her 50s, said she sold the plastic containers to women who sell zobo and kunu outside the hospital premises to augment her meagre salary.
"People have to be sure of what they consume. Just recently I went to see a friend who was sick in the hospital and I was given a bottle which had some bodily fluid to dispose off. Immediately I flung the container on to a refuse dump, an elderly woman was waiting to pick the plastic bottle for reuse.
"Because I already knew the health implication, I stopped the woman. But many have gone unchecked like that for years and so many innocent people have fallen sick and even died from unknown causes.
"I understand that people, especially the poor, will be affected by my story because many depend on businesses like this that do not require big capital to earn a living. But nothing comes close to the sanctity of human lives," she said, "I know it's a divisive story but it's a story I have to tell."
According to medical professionals, consuming drinks in reused plastic bottles sourced from unverified places pose serious health risk to unsuspecting consumers, including exposing them to the risk of contracting diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and even cholera.
To evaluate the health risks associated with consuming drinks in reused plastic bottles, Vanguard interviewed some medical professionals to get their insights on why it is risky to take drinks in reused plastic bottles whose sources can not be verified.
Speaking with Vanguard, Dr. Tunji Oyebanji, a medical doctor with Federal Medical Center, Yobe said it's not advisable to take drinks in reused plastic bottles because their source are sometimes, not verifiable.
According to him, "It is not advisable to take drinks in reused plastic containers because you can't verify how clean the drinks are. One can be infected with diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis and typhoid.
"You have to be sure of the hygiene level of the seller if you must take such drinks. I think it is even better to abstain from them completely. Using boiled water to wash such containers is not advisable, because, even though temperature of up to 75 degrees might kill some germs, certain cancerous substances can melt into the bottle under high temperature and increase health risk to the consumer."
Another health professional, Samuel Ojone, a microbiologist with Niger-Delta University, Amasoma confirmed to Vanguard that not all microorganisms are allergic to alkaline solutions and heat.
He noted that some microorganisms when threatened, go into spore formations (dormant state) and become active again in favourable environments.
"Not all microorganisms are allergic to or feel the detrimental effect of alkaline solutions (from soap and detergent). Organisms have the ability to go into spore formations when threatened even with immense heat. Heating is not a sterilization procedure, it is a disinfection procedure. So there's no assurance that it will eliminate all microbial lives.
"The moment they come into favourable environments, like zobo and kunu, because of their sugar content, they come back to their vegetative form; they become active again. Taking bottles from hospitals is a very wrong idea because some organisms can cause nosocomial infections (infections transmitted in hospitals). And there's every possibility that some microorganisms might have come in contact with the vessels," he noted.
Vanguard's investigation revealed that most sellers of zobo and kunu drinks are women from low-income homes, many of whom are widows and female breadwinners whose husbands are either out of jobs, or earn very low wages.
Asabe Usman, a zobo and kunu seller in Gwallameji, a suburb of Bauchi local government area, when asked if she knew the health implications of collecting used containers from unknown sources, told Vanguard that she "ensured that all bottles were washed with detergent, hence no need to find out where they were sourced from".
She lamented that her family would be subjected to grovelling poverty and suffering if she stopped producing zobo and kunu drinks.
"I buy used containers from a woman who usually supplies them to me. My husband is old and sick, the profit I make from here is what I use to take care of my family and send my children to school.
"If this business ends today, I won't be able to explain the kind of suffering we would undergo. The economy is bad. Even with this business, we are not able to eat twice a day, sometimes. What would become of us if you take this business from me?" she queried rhetorically.
Another woman in the same business, Stella Manasseh, who was in shock when she learned of the health risks associated with consuming drinks in reused plastic bottles, said she was not aware, but promised to comply with any new government regulation that would allow her produce safer drinks for her customers.
"I am not aware that patronizing people who sell used plastic bottles posed any health risk to my customers. While I await new regulations from the government, I will do my best to ensure that I keep my drinks as clean as possible," she said.
But for Danjuma Adam, a computer science student of Abubabakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), nothing can dent his "love for zobo regardless of what anyone is saying".
According to him, "As a student, zobo serves as alternative food for me because I can not afford N300 to buy a plate of food. My parents struggle to pay my fees, and what I am given as pocket money is usually not enough to feed me. So I just stick with zobo and sometimes, kunu. With only N100, my lunch and dinner are guaranteed."
When asked if he wasn't bothered about risking his health, he said, "One of them will surely kill me. It is either I die from starvation, which is imminent or I die from a disease. But now that I know about the danger, I will select people I buy zobo from, carefully."
Vanguard visited Consumer Protection Council (CPC) which is now known as Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) to find out if they are aware of the unhealthy practice of storing drinks in used plastic bottles, and what the Commission is doing to regulate their such ventures.
The Head, Consumer Education at the zonal headquarters of the Commission in Bauchi, Audu Durkwa Burka said the Commission is not focusing on unregistered businesses yet, but assured that he will report the issue to the headquarters in Abuja and ask approval to organize awareness campaigns and trainings in collaboration with National Orientation Agency (NOA) to equip people in the business with knowledge and skills to offer better products and services.
"I am happy about this revelation. We will look critically into it and come up with programmes to sensitize people on the dangers of engaging in such risky venture. Public health is a sector that requires urgent attention, and I can assure you that we will swing into action very soon.
"If we have to bring them together in clusters, like cooperatives, so that we can monitor their activities, we will do that. We might order total replacement of reused plastic bottles with polythene bags. I think that will be safe for everyone. But for now, everything is on the table," Burka said.
When Vanguard contacted the Bauchi office of National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to know whether their mandate includes monitoring activities of unregistered businesses like zobo and kunu ventures, the officer who refused to reveal his identity bolted away, saying "I doubt and I wouldn't know".
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