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Lead Poisoning Death Toll Continues to Rise in Nigeria

Zamfara State governor suspends illegal gold mining in effort to curb deaths

Nigerian authorities are decontaminating large areas of the northwestern state of Zamfara, after lead poisoning from illegal gold mining has killed dozens of women and children.

Zamfara has a huge deposit of gold as well as other minerals, which has attracted many investors. Local villagers, who are mostly artisanal miners and subsistence farmers, see gold mining as an opportunity to improve their livelihoods and as a result engage in the activity illegally.

Miners brought back to their communities ore containing gold, but also high levels of lead. Many have been poisoned by the dust spread by breaking and pulverizing rocks containing the minerals.

Chinedu Offor is covering this story and is in Gusua, the capital of Zamfara state. He told VOA the governor of the state, Mahmud Shinkafi, says the death toll from lead contamination is now up to 200 people so far, mainly women and children.

“But, other figures put the figure higher at [up to] 600. The governor says authorities have mobilized experts and provided medication and drugs to the affected areas. So now, he says all activities that led to this tragedy have been suspended, and that is the illegal mining of lead by poor peasant villagers," said Offor.

Many victims died have after coming into contact with tools, soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead.

“They take these lead deposits and take it home to refine it," explained Offor. "They use kitchen utensils and other household items to try and extract the lead. As a result, it gets into their drinking water. It gets into their food and they are exposed to lead because they are not wearing protective clothing. I am told people die quite horribly."

Offor said Nigeria’s government says it has suspended all activity at the illegal gold mining sites in Zamfara State in northern Nigeria and has sent experts to handle the issue.

“The governor told me they have used earth moving equipment to scoop up large areas of contamination and taken it to dump sites,” said Offor.

He said in addition to those who have died, there are possibly hundreds of contaminated children who will suffer long term effects.