BAGEGA, NIGERIA - About 20 miles from the nearest paved road or light switch, the village of Bagega, Nigeria is the epicenter of the worst lead poisoning outbreak that anyone can remember. The government has promised millions of dollars for a massive life-saving cleanup, but small children continue to play in toxic dirt, and activists say time is running out.
At a gold-processing site, men hammered away at rocks. As he worked, Ismail explained how it’s done.
He said that first they crush the rocks, then they feed the pebbles into an electric flour mill, powered by a small generator. Gold is then extracted from the sand. As they worked, an unusual kind of dust billows from the hammers and machines, covering Ismail’s body and clothes. It’s dust that is laden with lead.
Casualties and rampant sickness
Activists say hundreds of children have been killed in this region over the past few years, and thousands have been crippled by the lead from the mining and processing of gold here in Zamfara State in northern Nigeria.
Many villages in the region already have been cleaned up and survivors have been treated. Some of those villages lost more than 40 percent of their children before the outbreak subsided.
In Bagega, however, thousands of children continue to be exposed every day. The government has promised more than $4 million for cleanup, but so far nothing appears to be happening.
The head of Nigeria's Doctors Without Borders branch, Ivan Gayton, said they have the medicine and are ready to treat the children, but they can’t do anything until the lead is cleaned up, a process they call remediation. Right now in Bagega, he said, children are playing in poison dirt, getting sick when they put their hands in their mouths.
“It has been three years that the children of Bagega have been waiting for this environmental remediation that makes them eligible for treatment," said Gayton. "It’s not that we don’t want to treat without the remediation, it’s that we can’t. If there’s no environmental remediation, our medicine is useless. We might as well be giving sugar pills. So there’s nothing we can do for our patients who are suffering and dying.”
Gayton said if cleanup doesn’t begin this month, it could be too late to complete the process before the rainy season begins next year.
Lead-poisoning effects linger
Dr. Paul Eze treats lead poisoning victims at a hospital in Anka, a small city that can be reached from the village of Bagega by motorcycle in about an hour during the dry season. It takes much longer when it rains. He said that while many children have died from lead poisoning in the region, most infected children survive, although the effects of the poisoning linger.
“Lethargy, unconsciousness. They could also have other neurological impairments, like developmental delay, reduced intelligence. In the long run, some of them eventually develop cerebral palsy and loss of the use of the limbs,” Eze said.
Despite the horrors lead poisoning can inflict, miners in Bagega say they won’t quit because they need the money to survive.
Hassan Mousa, a miner, said he can now make hundreds of dollars a week - twice what he used to make in a whole year when he was a farmer.
A couple of months ago, he added, his one-year-old baby had a high fever and began to convulse. He rented a motorcycle and spent nearly six hours driving through 20 miles of mud and rain to get help.
Poverty versus illness
Aid workers said they told him to move out of Bagega so the baby could be treated. They said it's typical, though, for parents to risk lead poisoning over extreme poverty, and they're not surprised that Mousa hasn’t left.
At the mining site, about 20 minutes away by motorcycle through the bush, another miner, Kaminu, said gold mining is the best thing that ever happened to him.
While his colleagues dig with shovels, raising old plastic jerrycans of rocks out of the narrow pits on ropes, Kaminu prepares for his shift, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.
He said he has heard of the dangers of lead poisoning, but he’s not concerned because he drinks milk - a treatment that doctors say is not based on medical science.
Other miners are more worried about mining bans the government has threatened to enforce than they are about lead poisoning in the village.
If they don’t clean up the village their children may continue to get sick, they said. But if they shut down the mines, they won't have enough money to survive.