Médecins Sans Frontières warns that with government aid funds tied up in bureaucracy and corruption, thousands of children are being exposed to deadly lead poisoning in northern Nigeria, with little prospect of a clean-up illuminating risk in the coming months.
Earlier this year, the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) notified the wider world that the mining in Zamfara State, Northern Nigeria, was the cause of an outbreak of lead poisoning which, by the time of MSF intervention in 2010, had already killed up to 400 children under the age of 5. An appreciation in the demand and value of gold across the world in 2008 renewed interest in mining in the area, and it became financially feasible to set about extracting the gold trapped between think layers of the local rock. The process involves hard manual labour however, more often than not done by children. The rock is dug up by hand and broken up with a hammer, or a pestle and mortar, then panned for gold with a mixture of mercury to combine with the metal. The crushing of the pebbles expels copious amounts of dust which is highly contaminated with lead, which then enters the body through the lungs or the digestive tract, and is highly soluble in stomach acid. The MSF conducted blood tests in the area and found the blood lead levels in local children to be dozens or even hundreds of times higher than international safety standards permit. Thousands have fallen sick since the re-activation of the mines, and in the town of Bagega, 1500 children still remain exposed to lead poisoning on a daily basis.
In 2010 more than 50% of the children in nearby Yargalama who had been exposed to high levels of lead died, and local water sources are also now contaminated with a fine pervasive lead powder. Children are particularly vulnerable, due to their inclination to put their hands in their mouth, but they also regularly play in the mine’s waste piles, further inhaling and ingesting the poisonous lead. In this Sharia Muslim community, women are not permitted to work outside of the house, but in this case rock grinding can be done in flour mills at home, bringing in vital income for the family, and covering the home in a fine coating of lead powder in the process. In an area of such extreme poverty, there are few options for generating household income, and it is unfeasible for aid workers to tell miners to go back to goat herding in the face of potential profit. Even set aside from the risk of lead poisoning, the miners also work in dangerous conditions and have to handle mercury daily; another huge health risk which has enormous consequences after years of build up, but nonetheless a risk which most workers are willing to take to get food for their families.
The case in Northern Nigeria is now thought to be the largest outbreak of lead poisoning in history, and of the children who have survived, hundreds are now suffering from long-term mental problems or disabilities, such as seizures, convulsions, and cerebral palsy. One girl who did survive is Omema, but she was rendered both deaf and dumb by the sickness. Children under 5 in her village have now been treated by the MSF, and the number of deaths and miscarriages has fallen to less than 2%. Meanwhile in other towns and villages the gold rush means that the pace of mining is still increasing, and the MSF has publicly called for the release of the promised government funds of 850 million Naira (US $ 5.4 million) for environmental remediation (removal of the contaminants), as the MSF cannot provide effective treatment until this is has been done. An official conference was held in May 2012 to address the issue, but government representatives and ministers for mining, the environment, and health were not present, and no concrete action has been announced.
In the meantime, the MSF is pressing for remediation by the middle of this month, stating that if it doesn’t start now, it will not be completed before the arrival of the rainy season in April/May of next year, making it impossible for them to get into remote villages to provide aid, and delaying the much-needed medical care by several more months. Zakira Mwatia, an MSF nurse in Zamfara, said that “some of the villagers are attempting to remediate their own compounds in hopes that MSF will be able to provide treatment”. For now though, the people in these mining communities in Zamfara state remain anonymous on the long list of citizens of 3rd world countries who pay the price for the wills and whims of people on the other side of the planet.
For more information about the MSF’s work in the area, see http://www.msf.org/msf/articles/2012/05/lead-poisoning-crisis-in-zamfara-state-northern-nigeria.cfm
A petition requesting aid for the children affected by lead poisoning can be found here: http://followthemoneyng.org