MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Children in Nigeria continue dying from lead poisoning

Published by MAC on 2010-10-18
Source: Reuters, IRIN, BBC

It's still not clear how many children will yet die, due to lead poisoning caused by gold extraction in northern Nigeria. See: Unprecedented lead poisoning strikes Nigerian villages

According to the UN, more than 400 youngsters have already succumbed and thousands more remain at risk.

However, says El-Shafi'i Muhammad Ahmada of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF):"The figures are far higher than that. Communities deny such deaths or attribute them to spirits and other beliefs."

On January 13th 2011, one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, The Nation, urged that "a way must be found to engage the miners as economic actors devoid of the usual government posturing that they are criminals".

400 children in Nigeria have died since March from gold-mining linked lead poisoning - MSF


5 October 2010

GENEVA - Some 400 children in northern Nigeria have died since March from lead poisoning linked to illegal mining by residents for gold, and thousands more remain at risk, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The Dutch arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) reported the new toll, up from 160 deaths last June, and is treating a further 500 children in its four clinics, a U.N. spokeswoman said. Most victims are under age five.

"The lead pollution and intoxication crisis in Zamfara state is far from over," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"An urgent and coordinated response is needed. Thousands (of people) are at risk," she told a news briefing.

A U.N. assessment mission, acting at the request of the Nigerian government, found that water supplies in four out of five villages visited were contaminated by high levels of lead.

Concentrations of mercury in the air were also high, according to their preliminary results issued after a two-week investigation in Abare, Bagega, Dareta, Kersa and Sunke.

"The exposure to lead is thought to be caused by processing of lead containing gold ore in rural areas. Nearby mined ore is brought into the villages for further processing, which is often done by women and young children," a U.N. summary said.

The affected villages are largely made of mud-brick buildings and lie in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers.

Too much lead can cause irreparable damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. Lead is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women who pass the metal through the placenta to foetuses or to babies via breastfeeding.

Many families thought that their children suffering convulsions had malaria, but blood samples taken by MSF revealed the lead poisoning, according to the U.N. spokeswoman. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Communities' resistance hampers lead cleanup


1 October 2010

ANKA - Efforts to treat children poisoned by lead and to clean up contaminated sites in northern Nigeria's Zamfara State are being hampered by the reticence of communities to divulge cases, for fear of a government ban on lucrative illegal gold mining.

UN water testing for lead poisoning from gold mining in Nigeria
UN experts take water samples for testing,
from a village hit by lead poisoning in
Zamfara state Photo: Aminu Abubakar, IRIN

Lead poisoning linked to informal mining has killed over 400 children under five since March 2010, according to the United Nations. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical relief agency, noticed high numbers of convulsions and deaths among children in Dareta and Yargalma villages in Zamfara State in March 2010, and started investigating.

"The figures are far higher than that," El-Shafi'i Muhammad Ahmad, MSF programme coordinator in Anka, in Zamfara state, told IRIN. "Communities deny such deaths or attribute them to spirits and other beliefs."

"The reluctance of communities to disclose ... lead-related illnesses or deaths, and ... where they conduct mining activities, is seriously hampering our efforts to identify communities at risk and pencil them down for decontamination," Ian von Lindern, head of TerraGraphics, a US-based environmental engineering firm heading decontamination efforts, told IRIN. "In some cases it takes two weeks to convince a community to open up."

Heavy rains have further delayed clean-up efforts. TerraGraphics prioritized seven villages - Abare, Sunke, Dareta, Tungar Daji, Duza, Yargalma, Tungar Guru - to be decontaminated from June 2010, but has only worked in Dareta and Yargalma because rain made the others inaccessible.

TerraGraphics, with support from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), is helping Zamfara State authorities decontaminate. A joint team from the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Environment Unit (OCHA) arrived in Anka on 23 September to analyze the ground water.

Children most at risk

The short-term effects of lead poisoning include convulsions, loss of consciousness, and blindness; serious long-term effects are anaemia, renal failure, brain damage, and impotence, said MSF's El-Shafi'i Muhammad Ahmad.

Contamination is particularly harmful to young children due to their low immunity, and can result in death. MSF runs clinics in the towns of Anka and Bukkuyum to treat children with severe and acute lead contamination.

In Zamfara State men bring home gold ore from mining sites, which their wives crush to powder with a hammer or grinding stone before flushing it with water to remove the sand and retain the gold. Young children, who are usually beside their mothers, inhale this dust, Ahmad told IRIN.

Some 3,600 children under five live in the seven most affected villages, according to a Terra Graphic survey, but four more villages were recently designated as being at severe risk. A joint study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Health Ministry of Zamfara State identified 180 villages where children may have been poisoned by lead, which means that up to 30,000 people could be affected.

Lucrative trade

Farming and herding communities in the mineral-rich southern part of Zamfara State have been engaged in illegal artisanal gold mining and processing the ore for over two decades.

The trade is profitable: it takes about two hours to extract about one gram of gold, which miners can sell for US$23. In comparison, 50 kg of millet, which takes four months to cultivate, sells for $40, said Umaru Na-Ta'ala, who lives in Kirsa village, where 50 children have died and there have been 20 stillbirths since 2010.

Villagers only spoke out about these deaths in July, when members of a state government "lead taskforce" - made up of environment and health ministry representatives, local chiefs, MSF, TerraGraphics, and WHO - visited their village. "We are apprehensive that disclosing the problem will make the government clamp down on our mining work," Na-Ta'ala told IRIN.

TerraGraphics decontaminates homes and villages by removing 3cm of top-soil - the extent to which contamination usually goes - and replaces it with clean soil. It then buries the contaminated soil away from the villages.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

UN probes outbreak of lead poisoning in northern Nigeria

21 September 2010

The United Nations humanitarian arm is expanding its assistance to authorities in northern Nigeria, where a large-scale outbreak of lead poisoning resulting from the backyard efforts of some locals to dig for gold has affected hundreds of children this year.

A five-member team of environmental emergency specialists arrived yesterday in Abuja, the capital, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported today.

The team will spend several weeks taking samples of soil and drinking water and analyzing them, and will also devise recommendations on how to clean up pollution from lead, mercury and copper.

OCHA has allocated $2 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), while the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) are working with local health authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to treat victims of the outbreak.

A spike in lead-related illnesses and deaths emerged at the start of this year in two districts of Zamfara state in northern Nigeria. Investigations revealed that the cause was the attempts of many locals to extract gold from lead-contaminated soils in and around their houses and compounds.

Call to Action


The Nation (Nigeria)

13 January 2011

LAST Friday, the joint team from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Environment Programme which investigated the outbreak of lead poisoning in Zamfara State turned in their verdict: lead poisoning from illegal mining activities remains an "alarming" risk. To date, the outbreak has claimed no less than 400 innocent children.

The body warned, rather chillingly, that "until complete remediation of polluted villages takes place, and as long as ore processing continues in sensitive areas " home compounds and villages, wells and ponds used for drinking water by humans and livestock â€" there remains an alarming, continuing health risk".

"High levels of lead pollution", the team observed, "were found in the soil and mercury levels in air were determined to be nearly 500 times the acceptable limit".

Also, blood lead levels, ostensibly from ingestion and inhalation of fine lead particles by the victims were found to be "unprecedented" for human beings.

The body recommended ameliorative measures: the government should do more to clean up villages to prevent further deaths. The team did not fail to note that at the time of the mission, only two villages had been remediated, while the list of villages suspected to be contaminated continued to grow.

It recommended: "focus should instead be placed on informing about and implementing safer practices; enacting stronger regulation; and establishing areas outside of villages where ore could be securely stored and safely processed without posing significant threats to human health and the environment."

We cannot agree more with the UN study team that wild-cat mining should be controlled, given the dangers it poses to lives and the environment. Clearly, the practice cannot be allowed to go on as it is. And this is far from suggesting that the informal economy, on which several thousands of Nigerian families depend, should be outlawed.

There are two aspects to the problem: first is the remediation of the environment, including a programme of resettlement for the victims; the second is a programme to accord formal recognition to the informal economy, with a view to integrating it into the formal economy.

As to the first, the UN team has provided a blueprint for action. What the federal and state governments need to do is swing into action to clean up the affected communities. They should partner with community leaders to ensure that the affected areas are completely rid of poisonous lead. As far as possible, the government should carve out mining belts for those involved as well as set safety standards and enforce compliance. In short, the government should restore balance between man and the environment dislocated in the wake of the lead poison outbreak as soon as possible.

Integrating the illegal miners into the formal economy is perhaps where the greater challenge is. The people are not only poor, they are also uneducated; there is therefore the likelihood that they may spurn government initiatives which they may interpret as taking away their livelihoods.

This is where the government will need to think outside the box. A way must be found to engage the miners as economic actors devoid of the usual government posturing that they are criminals. The government should be able to identify their leaders with a view to organising them into cooperative societies, after which government can then step in with necessary logistics and support.

That way, it may yet turn out as win-win for everyone.

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