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Nigeria Gold Rush Exposes Thousands of Children to Lead Poison

By on May 10, 2012

A gold rush in northern Nigeria risks exposing tens of thousands of children to lead poisoning in what may already be the worst such crisis in history, Medecins Sans Frontieres said.

Residents of the northern Zamfara state started artisanal gold-mining in lead-rich ore around 2009 as the price of gold increased. When miners return to their villages, or grind ore near their homes, they spread lead-rich dust into households and the ground on which children crawl, resulting in them eating the lead as they have more hand-to-mouth activity than adults, the Geneva-based aid group said.

“We’re looking at the possibility of eventually more of the lead working its way into the aquifers, into the wells, into the water systems,” Ivan Gayton, a country director for MSF, told reporters yesterday in Abuja, the capital. “We haven’t even gotten there yet. Right now, we’re just looking at the effects of one or two years worth of dust.”

The outbreak has led to the deaths of 460 children, while 4,000 have been contaminated, Gayton said. MSF has treated 2,500, some of whom will need up to 20 years of follow-up therapy. Another 1,500 children in the village of Bagega haven’t been treated because the government hasn’t cleaned up the area, making treatment futile, he said. In seven villages where a clean-up has been carried out, recontamination has occurred and is now accelerating, he said.

Safety Culture

Mohammed Kabir Janyau, the commissioner of Zamfara state’s health ministry, said by phone from Abuja today that the local authority is “trying to enlighten people to understand the culture of safe mining practice,” as well as providing miners with safety equipment such as masks, gloves and respirators. An official who answered the phone at the federal mining ministry declined to comment and said the minister wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Gayton spoke at the start of a two-day meeting of Nigeria’s ministries of health, environment and mining to address the crisis. The federal government should help the miners find a safer way to extract the gold while cleaning the lead from households and villages to prevent further contamination, he said.

The government announced in November that it would fund a clean-up with 850 million naira ($5.4 million). That would “go a long way” to resolving the issue, though authorities have yet to display “the political will to get that money released,” Gayton said. MSF is currently spending $5 million of its own money a year to treat the children, and lacks the resources to provide more treatment if the crisis worsens, he said.

‘In Rough Shape’

Long-term consequences to the children who have been treated include mental deficiency, loss of IQ, damaged organs and developmental difficulties, Gayton said. “Even those children who we’ve saved are likely to be in rough shape, and probably for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Located in the poverty-stricken north of Nigeria, 71 percent of Zamfara’s population live on less than $1 a day, compared with the national average of 61 percent. Children there have been found with levels of lead that are dozens of times higher than the internationally accepted threshold for concern, Gayton said.

“It’s accurate to say that this is one of the worst, if not the worst, lead-poisoning crises ever,” he said.