Abuja, Nigeria - More than 400 children have died from lead poisoning related to artisanal gold mining (small scale or mining that uses toxins to extract gold) in the past two years in the northern Nigerian state, Zamfara. Human Rights Watch
says it is “the worst outbreak in modern history.” The rights group says thousands more sick children may be permanently disabled or die if immediate action is not taken.
Amina tells aid workers in Nigeria that she used to have six children. Three of her children, like hundreds of other victims in Zamfara State, have died from lead poisoning.
The lead killing children comes from the same place as the village’s primary means of survival: gold mines.
To extract the gold, local miners crush rock ore, releasing lead dust into the air, onto their clothes, and sometimes all over children who assist in the process. This dust is dangerous for adults, but for children in can be fatal or lead to severe lifelong disabilities.
Human Rights Watch says some household yards have almost 60 times the amount of lead considered safe is in the sand than is considered safe.
Jane Cohen, who works as an environmental researcher for Human Rights Watch, says thousands of children are in need of emergency treatment, miners need to be given the means to adopt safe mining practices and contaminated homes and buildings need to be cleaned up.
“It is really the worse lead poisoning outbreak in modern history," she said. "Even though this is a complex problem, we do know basically what we need to do to solve it and the issue at this point is there is just a lack of funding.”
Cohen says it will $4 to $5 million to clean up and implement safer mining practices in Zamfara and her organization is lobbying the Nigerian federal government to foot the bill.
Aid groups are ready to provide emergency medical treatment for children. But Cohen says that treatment will only harm the children if the lead is not cleaned up first.
The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, donor agencies, representatives of the Nigerian government and advocates like Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations are meeting this week in Abuja to try to address the problem.
Cohen says introducing low-tech safe mining practices like grinding rock inside tanks to contain the lead and making sure workers have a change of clothes or showers so they don’t go home and contaminate their babies could save lives.
She says an even simpler start is to keep the children away from the gold mining processing.
“If you’re up at the industrial processing site you see young children who are just covered in mud and dust and you see small girls-maybe 3, 4 years old walking around at this processing site breathing in the dust," said Cohen. "It's still quite a difficult situation.”
The U.S. National Institute of Health says lead poisoning is most dangerous for the youngest of children, especially unborn babies. In addition to death, it can lead to kidney damage, loss of developmental skills, lowered IQs, seizures, comas and a host of other problems.