In the northwestern state of Zamfara, gold mines are worked by artisan miners. At least 400 children have recently died in the region because of lead poisoning from the mines. Human Rights Watch (HRW) labels Zamfara “the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history”.
In Zamfara, lead dust is released when the ore is crushed to extract the gold. Children don’t even need to be involved in helping with the mining work. They are exposed when rocks are crushed in their villages or when miners return covered in dust. In a 2010 study conducted by the World Health Organization, the average lead levels in children’s blood were found to be ten times greater in Zamfara State than the maximum acceptable levels. The short-term symptoms of lead poisoning include convulsions and loss of consciousness; long-term, it can cause renal failure and brain damage.
The medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been working in the region to treat children and remove metals from their bodies. Over 2,000 children are being treated, but many more are believed to be in need of urgent help. Speaking to IRIN, the head of MSF in Nigeria said “every month that goes by, more children are being damaged”. The full extent of the poisoning is hard to know and the MSF head admitted “…for the most part, we’re holding a finger in the dike”.
A group of international organizations have been working with local government to clean up villages of lead contamination. Seven villages so far have been decontaminated, but there are over 40 more which need to be addressed. Even where sites have been declared safe, the cleaning process can only be effective long-term if safer mining practices are adopted. One estimate from HRW puts the cost of setting up wet milling or crushing of the ore in tanks (to minimize dust) at around 4 million dollars.
Federal authorities have said this kind of investment will be made in the future. Until then, miners will be encouraged to shower or wash before returning home. Experts say that attempts in the past to declare artisanal mining illegal have not helped the situation, since it only drives the activity underground and families are then afraid to come forward when their children become sick. While the price of gold remaining high, people in this poor region of Nigeria will continue to see the activity as their only way out of poverty, regardless of the risk to their children. As one artisanal miner in another African country said “we do it because we have no alternative”.