Written by ICCON
A deadly lead poisoning outbreak that began two years ago in northern Nigeria continues to claim young victims even today, due to the lack of total commitment on the part of Nigerian government to tackle the epidemic from the roots.
Medecins Sans Frontieres’s (MSF), Head of mission in Nigeria, Ivan Gayton had criticized the government of oil-rich Nigeria for not taking the threat seriously, despite over 4,000 children already being sickened by the outbreak linked to gold mining.
“One thousand five hundred children are currently lead-poisoned but are not receiving treatment because it is impossible to deliver effective treatment while they still live in contaminated homes,” Ivan Gayton, said.
In 2009 it became clear that hundreds of children in the northern state of Zamfara had died from exposure to lead.
In 2010, a Nigerian health ministry official reported that lead poisoning caused by illegal gold mining had killed 163 Nigerians, most of them children, in remote villages, in the space of just a few months. In November, 2011 the Nigerian government said it would spend more than $5m (£3m) cleaning up Zamfara, and in some areas this work has already begun.
Since then, the mining has continued and some 4,000 children of the miners, often from desperately poor backgrounds where other sources of income are meager, have been contaminated. The villages affected, such as Dareta and Giadanbuzu, are in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers. No action has been taken to help them.
ROOT CAUSES OF LEAD POISON OUTBREAK
The existence of gold deposits in Zamfara along the border of Niger had been long known. But it wasn’t until gold prices soared in recent years that villagers began heading into the bush to search for it.
Soon the poor herdsmen and farmers could sell gold for more than $23(N 3,680) a gram – a huge sum in Nigeria where most people live on less than $2 (N320) a day.
However, the ore brought back to the villages in Zamfara contained extremely high levels of lead.Miners return from work dusted with lead, which then pollutes their homes. Fathers carried the precious rocks home to store inside their mud-walled compounds, sometimes leaving them on sleeping mats. Wives often broke the rocks and ground them, sending dust and flakes into the villages’ communal areas.
HEALTH EFFECTS OF LEAD POISON
High levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, resulting in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults. In severe cases, it can lead to seizures, coma and death.
Because the body struggles to rid itself of metal, it accumulates in the blood over time. Children are particularly vulnerable because their developing nervous systems can be permanently damaged. It wasn’t until 160 children died and others went blind and deaf that authorities in 2010 realized the region faced a lead poisoning outbreak, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called “unprecedented”.
Children suffer most because their size makes them more vulnerable to the effects. Symptoms include lethargy, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and headaches. Children in particular may develop encephalopathy – seizures, delirium and coma. For mild poisoning it may be sufficient to remove the patient from the source. More severe poisoning will need medical treatment, but may prove fatal.
Foreign aid groups have done much of the work to clean the villages affected in rural Zamfara state and provide care to the children, who likely will suffer long-term brain damage from their exposure to the lead. Meanwhile, tests show that lead is returning to areas that have been cleaned. An international team of doctors and hazardous waste experts arrived in Zamfara in mid-May 2010 to clean the region, but seasonal rains halted their work.
In the time since, the cleanup work and the medical care for those affected has come almost entirely from foreign aid groups. While the government ordered the halt of mining by local villages, the practice continued. In January 2011, it was reported that some villages already cleaned by foreign experts showed traces of lead and mercury again because residents had begun mining again without taking any precautions.
Gayton called on Nigeria’s government to release $5.3 million for the cleanup effort. He also said the government needed to educate those living there that precautions could make mining safe. “It’s possible to do the environmental remediation and it is possible to do safer mining,” Gayton said. “We need not die in search of livelihood. It can be done safely.”
On Friday May 11, 2012, an International Conference to find solutions to the Zamfara lead poisoning crisis, of which Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was the lead organizer, concluded its brainstorming session. The conference delegates endorsed a clear action plan calling for Nigerian government commitment to resolve the crisis.
“There has been plenty of talk, but now is the time for action” said Ivan Gayton, MSF Country Representative in Nigeria. “MSF said at the conference that it would only consider the conference to be a success when all of the poisoned children are living in a safe environment and receiving treatment.”
At the May, 2012 Conference, delegates including Zamfara State officials, HRH the Emir of Anka, Nigerian government representatives as well as national and international aid workers, scientists, health, environmental and mining experts expressed disappointment that the decision-makers from the Nigerian government; the Ministers of Mines, Environment, and Health, were not present – and that no concrete action by the Nigerian federal government was announced.
Then, the Conference called for the promised funds of N 850 million (US$ 5.4 million) for environmental remediation and safer mining that have been languishing for months, while thousands of children continue to suffer from acute lead poisoning, must be urgently released without further delay to the people of Zamfara.
Also, the Conference agreed an Action Plan to set the path to achieving the three key pillars necessary to solve the Zamfara crisis – medical care; environmental remediation and safer mining. To succeed, the Nigerian government, in particular the ministries of Mines, Environment, and Health at both federal and state level must commit significant resources and coordination.
Release of the promised funds was a key priority of the Action Plan, as is the immediate remediation of the village of Bagega where an estimated 1500 children have been suffering from lead poisoning since 2010, and continue to wait for their village to be made safe. MSF cannot provide effective treatment in locations such as Bagega, which have not been remediated. MSF treats the sickest children at its inpatient facility in Anka hospital.
“The people of Bagega are desperate for help.” said Zakaria Mwatia, a nurse and project coordinator for MSF in Zamfara. “Some of the villagers are attempting to remediate their own compounds in hopes that MSF will be able to provide treatment.”
“To effectively cut the pathways of lead contamination requires specialized expertise and equipment” said Simba Tirima scientist with environmental engineering experts Terragraphics. The people of Bagega need the urgently required assistance to provide a safe environment for their children.”
The charity group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is concerned that the situation in Zamfara is deteriorating as the water supply becomes polluted. MSF also called on the Nigerian government to do more to deal with the deadly outbreak of lead poisoning.
It is also our believe that it is possible to do environmental remediation as well as carry out safer mining. The Nigerian government needs to act now to help thousands of children in Zamfara exposed to lead who are at risk of death or long-term disability.
More than 2,500 children with high-lead blood levels have been treated. However, thousands more cannot be treated because they continue to be exposed to lead. For those children, treatment would be ineffective or could lead to even more serious medical problems.
It has been more than two years since this epidemic began and the government needs to end the inaction and delay. If Nigeria’s federal government steps forward, Zamfara could become a model of how lead poisoning can be effectively addressed, instead of an example of how hundreds of children’s lives were needlessly lost. It is a known fact that since the problem first came to light about three years ago the price of gold has almost doubled.
More and more people have turned to mining despite the health risks to their families.Although the authorities have told people to stop mining, Experts including professional Chemists at the Institute of Chartered Chemists of Nigeria (ICCON) want to see better education in place to teach people of the health risk of mining gold ore containing lead and also alternative safer process of mining.
The Institute of Chartered Chemists of Nigeria (ICCON) was established by Decree 91 of 1993 (Now ICCON ACT CAP 1.12 LFN 2004) statutorily charged with the responsibility of regulating the teaching and practice of Chemistry profession in Nigeria. The Institute is a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Health.