In the Nigerian state of Zamfara, a gold boom has led to a medical disaster with more than 400 children dead from lead poisoning and thousands sickened. Jane Cohen of Human Rights Watch tells host Bruce Gellerman why so many children were exposed.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
For the past two years a medical disaster of historic proportions has been unfolding in remote villages in northern Nigeria. The soaring world price of gold sent villagers prospecting for flakes of the rare metal, but what the local miners also found was rock laced with lead. So far thousands of villagers have been exposed to massive levels of lead and 400 children have died from the neurotoxin, in what is believed to be the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.
Jane Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the disaster is far from over.
COHEN: There are still about 2,000 children who we know are now in need of urgent treatment. And there are also villages that have not been cleaned up, so there's still an acute situation with exposure.
But I think it's really important to point out here that lead poisoning, it usually does not cause death. Usually what it causes is problems with cognitive development. So the children who have not died but who have been exposed at a very high level, they will be affected by this for their entire lives. Additionally, we're seeing high rates of miscarriage and a lot of impotence in these communities, as well. So it's really affecting whole generations of children and families in the community.
Workers come from all over Nigeria come to mine for gold in Zamfara State. (Human Rights Watch)
GELLERMAN: What are the lead levels now?
COHEN: Well, it varies. In one home, where I was with the team and we measured the lead level, it was about 72,000 parts per million. Just to put that in perspective, a safe level is under 400 parts per million. And these are homes where there are numerous children who are crawling around on the ground and putting their hands in their mouths and we know that in this area there are still children who are convulsing, children who need to be rushed for medical care. It's really still ongoing.
Parents who work in the gold mines bring lead contaminated dust into their homes at the end of the day. (Human Rights Watch)
GELLERMAN: Jane, how did this ever happen?
COHEN: It's a result of artisanal gold mining, which is small-scale mining. And in northern Nigeria, there's a geologic anomaly where the gold is actually running with lead. So there's lead and gold together, which is not something that we normally see. And when people take the rock ore out of the ground, they crush it and they grind it and then a dust is made from that and that dust is contaminated with lead.
And people were doing that crushing and grinding often in their homes, so the lead dust was getting all over their homes. The men and women who do the grinding, that dust covers their clothes, so when they come home and pick up their children, their children are also breathing that dust in. So now, the situation is that it's not only new exposure, so people continuing to crush and grind ore in their home because, for the most part, that has stopped, but all of that contamination that happened previously is still in these homes unless those homes have been already cleaned up.
GELLERMAN: How many villages are affected by this?
Pounding rocks to release gold creates dust that children can ingest. (Human Rights Watch)
COHEN: We know of about 16 villages that have severe lead poisoning, so seven of those villages have been cleaned up. The biggest and most highly contaminated village, where we know there are 2,000 children right now who need treatment, that village has not been cleaned. And then we know of six or seven other villages that also have some level of contamination.
GELLERMAN: Didn't people who lived in these villages know that there was lead in the rock?
COHEN: No, I mean, they had no way of knowing, just like you or I would have no way of knowing. In fact, when it was discovered that there were mass deaths happening in this area, it took the scientific community quite a - it was hard for them to figure out what was going on, as well because we just don't see this. We don't see that artisanal gold mining leads to acute lead poisoning.
GELLERMAN: Jane, you've been to this area in northern Nigeria, right?
COHEN: Yes, yes.
GELLERMAN: What does it look like?
COHEN: Well, so the homes are made out of mud, which is also problematic because a lot of that mud is also now contaminated with lead. There are a few generators but there's no electricity, no running water. This is very, very remote. Just to put it in perspective, to get there from the nearest city is about a four hour drive and two of those hours are on a bush road that's basically impassable during the rainy season. This is about as remote as you can get. But it's this major hub now for gold mining in the north of Nigeria.
GELLERMAN: So you have lead dust everywhere; how do you clean up a mess like this?
COHEN: Basically, they remove all the contaminated soil and they bag it and put it in landfills and then they move in clean soil. You know, it's a difficult process but it's not impossible and it's also something that once you train people, they can really do it. It doesn't have to be, you know, really highly trained experts.
GELLERMAN: What kind of money are we talking about here, in terms of cleaning up at least this largest of villages that's still contaminated?
COHEN: Well, first of all I just want to clarify that what we're talking about here is really a three step process, that needs to be carried out in this order, because you cannot treat children for lead poisoning if they're going to go back to a contaminated area because the treatment for lead poisoning actually makes them more susceptible to the harms of lead. So their homes must be remediated.
But there's no point in remediating a home if mining is still being done unsafely and people are coming home with lead dust all over them. And then there really needs to be mass screening and testing for all children who have been exposed to this lead dust and then a treatment plan for all of them.
Children pour water contaminated with lead from gold mining into a trough. (Human Rights Watch)
And, you know, estimates really vary but we're looking somewhere in the four to five million dollar range, probably. So it's a commitment, but it's not overwhelming for a government like Nigeria. But until the government makes that commitment to show them how this mining can be done safely, people will still be mining and putting their families at risk.
GELLERMAN: Jane Cohen is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. Jane, thank you so very much.
COHEN: Thank you, Bruce.
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