Black Gold: How sale of catalytic converters puts lives in danger

Close up of an old catalytic converter in hand Car service being removed from engine gasoline car dust clogged condition on filter. [Getty Images]

On a hot Friday midmorning Mary Muthoni pulls in at a Roysambu roadside garage in Nairobi's Kasarani in a red Nissan Juke. She wants the vehicle's catalytic converter removed. 

The middle-aged woman says that she has noticed that her car loses power whenever she is overtaking on the highway and she thinks it's risky for her. Her friend has advised her to have her muffler (catalytic converter) removed to obtain optimum performance. The said friend had done that with her car.  

"You have to remove it. Otherwise, I'll drive myself to my death once I can't be fast enough to overtake and avoid the oncoming vehicle," says Muthoni, who seems adamant about removing the catalytic converter. 

The mechanic, Samuel Maina, however refuses to do her bidding. 

Muthoni is one of the increasing number of car owners who have been voluntarily asking that their cars' catalytic converters be removed, even as experts warn that the converter is important for sieving the toxins in the exhaust fumes that pollutes the air.  

However, some motorists have been confusing the catalytic converters for sound absorbing devices, as they seek to make their vehicles sound like Subaru on the roads.  

The catalytic converters sieve the toxics that come out with the fumes from burning fuel, by removing the tiny harmful particles called particulate matter that is harmful to the environment. 

If emitted, these tiny pieces of matter that cannot be seen with the naked eye will be breathed in and will lodge in lungs, causing respiratory illnesses that could be fatal in the long run. They are measured in micrometres and can be 2.5micrometres or 10 micrometres, hence called PM2.5 and PM10 respectively.  

PM2.5 particles are so small they can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream. There is sufficient evidence that exposure to PM2.5 over long periods (years) can cause adverse health effects.  

According Maina, he wouldn't do it unless he knew who Muthoni was and why she needed catalytic converter removed.  

However, in some instances, rogue mechanics have been stealing the catalytic converters without the car owners’ knowledge, because it is now an expensive venture.  

"This is now black gold, and anyone can pause as a customer wanting to have the muffler removed, then they turn and arrest you. It's against the law to remove it and unless you know the owner and can agree on how to sell it, it is a risky affair. One kilogramme goes for between Sh30,000 and Sh40,000," Maina says as he leans on an electric pole, still reluctant to remove the catalytic converter.  

Maina also says that the converters are used in making bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and that is why police arrest those involved in the theft and sale of the converters.  

“But because there are instances where the catalytic converters are removed without the knowledge of the car owners, some of them ask the mechanic to remove it and sell it, rather than have it stolen,” Maina explains.  

A study by Harvard University shows that catalytic converters make use of a catalyst, usually an expensive metal like platinum or palladium, to speed up the chemical reaction between oxygen and pollutants in the air. They convert these into less toxic byproducts like water vapour, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gas.  

“Directing exhaust fumes through a metal housing coated with the catalyst can remove up to 98% of pollutants from them, and regulations requiring the installation of catalytic converters on cars and smokestacks have helped dramatically improve air quality in cities around the world since the 1970s,” the study points out in part. 

According to George Mwaniki, the director of Air Quality for Africa at World Resources Institute, based in Nairobi, catalytic converters are ideally meant to contain most of the air pollutants within the vehicle instead of emitting them into the environment. So removing them means that pollutants are emitted directly into the atmosphere, which worsens air pollution. 

“Emissions from a vehicle, whose catalytic converters has been removed are potent air pollutants and they include particulate matter which drives more than 70% of health complication emerging from air pollution. Other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds are very hazardous and are a leading cause of various types of cancers and other major health complications. A vehicle whose catalytic converter is in place significantly reduces the emissions of these pollutants and therefore safeguards human health and ecosystem integrity,” Mwaniki says. 

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) carried out a study that estimated tailpipe emissions to account for roughly 361,000 premature deaths from ambient PM2.5 and ozone worldwide, with that number rising to roughly 385,000 in 2015. Furthermore, exhaust from on-road diesel vehicles accounted for roughly 181,000 premature deaths worldwide. 

James Mutua says Grogon is the headquarters for the removal of the mufflers.  

“You won’t miss a day without seeing a mechanic being chased by Flying Squad that he has removed a muffler. It’s very common here. I can guarantee you though; you will never get to see the muffler after it’s removed. They wrap it up in a carrier bag and is taken away within minutes if not seconds,” Mutua says.  

A SUV's catalytic converter is being removed at a salvage yard. [Getty Images]

According to Mutua, the dealers are connected, rich and powerful individuals who sell the mufflers to Al Shabaab terrorist group, or sell it back to car manufacturing companies so they can use it in making other vehicles.   

In Uganda, Michael Wanyama experienced the effects of air pollution firsthand when his son was diagnosed with asthma. At the time, he and his family were staying near a busy and dusty area full of old vehicles. Several medical reports pointed to dirty air as a possible cause of frequent respiratory system problems. 

“I moved my family to a cleaner environment, far from the road and with trees around, and the situation improved significantly in a matter of weeks. That’s when it hit me that at least I could shield my family from air pollution, yet there are millions of parents who have no choice. I figured I could use my experience and expertise to make road transportation around us cleaner and safer if the local technical workforce made improvements,” Wanyama says. 

As an experienced automotive technician, Wanyama did some research work on how the air around them was being polluted. Besides the dust it turned out old vehicles were a major factor. He then took time to interact with hundreds of mechanics within Kampala and realised most of them lacked the knowledge and tools to maintain the integrity of emission control systems in vehicles including catalytic converters.  

Wanyama then decided to register a nonprofit, Road Safety Initiative, which he directs, and he and his team began forming partnerships with local institutions and government through the Ministry of Transport.  

This helped them gain a deeper understanding of the gap between formal and informal transportation business within Uganda (and Africa), they found out that there’s a big disconnect. Working with Makerere University, they carried preliminary studies by organising several focus group discussions with mechanics, to better understand what they already know, challenges and concerns in line with their work. 

“The results showed that most of them are unaware of the existence of emission control systems in the vehicles they tend to every day. Some confuse catalytic converters for exhaust sound silencers and deliberately remove them. Some do it maliciously because of the easy way to make money out of the platinum and other precious metal components in catalytic converters - with little knowledge of the ecological consequences,” he explains. 

Wanyama is now charged with training mechanics to understand the importance of the catalytic converters in vehicles, beyond only selling them for money.  

“Our work is to sensitize them and show them the real value of cat converters and related emission controls, without the money part. They get to understand that once they modify or remove catalytic converters, they are affected too. We take them through practical steps on how to enhance and keep the safety and emissions systems functioning in vehicles,” he explains.  

In Nairobi, Maina is aware that removing the catalytic converters might mess up the environment, but says he is not sure exactly how, and says that many mechanics don’t know that and hence the reason they remove it, besides getting the money from its sale.  

“I am hearing this for the first time but you see, many of us did not go to school to study too much science about the parts of the vehicle. We learnt here what should be where, and how to fix it once it’s worn out. This work doesn’t pay much; so I will want the quick money given a chance so I can also fend for my family,” he says. 

Asked whether he wouldn’t mind his and his children’s health and safety from illnesses, Maina takes a deep breath and then says, “But the rising cost of living is harsher than the smoke we are inhaling here,” he concludes.

Dominic Kirui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya