How a Gold Mining Boom is Killing the Children of Nigeria
01 Mar 2012 - It is a pattern seen in various parts of the world — children being sickened from exposure to lead from mining activities. But the scale of the problem in Nigeria’s gold-mining region of Zamfara is unprecedented: More than 400 children have died and thousands more have been severely poisoned by exposure to lead dust.
In early 2010, while working in the impoverished rural region of Zamfara in northwestern Nigeria, the group Médecins Sans Frontičres — Doctors Without Borders — encountered many young children suffering from fevers, seizures, and convulsions. An unusually high number of very young children, many under age five, were dying, and there were many fresh graves.
The doctors initially suspected malaria, meningitis, or typhoid, all common in the region. But when the sick children didn’t respond to anti-malarial drugs or other antibiotics, one of the physicians began to wonder if local mining activity might be implicated. Historically an agricultural area, Zamfara had been experiencing a small-scale gold rush, thanks to rapidly rising gold prices that encouraged the pursuit of even the most marginal sources of ore. Mining work was taking place in and around the villages and within many of the mud-walled compounds where families were using flour mills to pulverize lead-laden rocks to extract gold.
Médecins Sans Frontičres (MSF) doctors sent children’s blood samples for testing and the results revealed acute lead poisoning. Many of the children had blood lead levels dozens, even hundreds, of times higher than international safety standards. Within a week, an emergency medical and environmental remediation team arrived and began to grapple with an epidemic of childhood lead poisoning that is being called unprecedented in modern times. In the past two years, more than 400 children have died in Zamfara, more than 2,000 have been treated with chelation therapy, and thousands more have been — and continue to be — severely poisoned by exposure to pervasive lead dust.
“We’re losing a whole generation of kids,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Jane Cohen, who was in Zamfara last December and whose group issued a report on the situation last month. The crisis continues despite the extraordinary work to date to treat the most severely affected children and to clean contaminated homes and village sites.
The lead poisoning crisis in Zamfara is unparalleled, but small-scale mining and other industrial activities — including lead-acid battery and electronics recycling — create lead contamination that afflicts children worldwide. Leaded gasoline and lead-paint have been phased out in most countries in recent decades, greatly reducing the extent of childhood lead poisoning, but in many places extensive childhood lead exposure continues. These include mining and smelting operations in La Oroya, Peru, where thousands of children have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead; the lead-zinc mines in Kosovo, whose lead contamination has been called one of Europe’s biggest environmental disasters; lead and zinc mining in Zambia; and smelting and mining waste in China that has exposed children to dangerous lead levels. A 2011 survey of worldwide childhood lead exposure found additional mine-related exposures occurring in Australia, Brazil, India, and Mexico.
For the complete article, please see Yale Environment 360.