Thousands of children in northern Nigeria need immediate medical treatment and dozens of villages remain contaminated two years into the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history, Human Rights Watch said today while releasing a video on the issue. Four hundred children have died, according to official estimates, yet environmental cleanup efforts have not even begun in numerous affected villages.
Artisanal gold mines are found throughout Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria, and high levels of lead in the earth and the use of rudimentary mining methods have resulted in an epidemic of lead poisoning among children, Human Rights Watch said. Research by Human Rights Watch in Zamfara in late 2011 found that children are exposed to this lead dust when they process ore in the mines, when their miner relatives return home covered with lead dust, and when the lead-filled ore is manually or mechanically crushed at home. Children can also be exposed to toxic lead in contaminated water and food. Healthcare workers in Zamfara State told Human Rights Watch that there have also been high rates of infertility and miscarriage among affected adults.
“Zamfara’s gold brought hope for prosperity, but resulted in death and backbreaking labor for its children,” said Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “People living in Zamfara State should not have to trade their lives, or their children’s lives, for the chance to mine gold and make a living.”
The Zamfara State government, in partnership with international organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and the United States Centers for Disease Control, has treated more than 1,500 children with acute lead poisoning, but thousands more children urgently need the life-saving chelation therapy treatment that removes lead from the body, Human Rights Watch said. Unless their homes are cleaned up and their relatives have access to safer mining techniques that minimize exposure to lead-contaminated dust, treatment will not be effective as children will be repeatedly re-exposed.
Lead is highly toxic and can interrupt the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children are particularly susceptible, and according to the World Health Organization, high levels of lead exposure can cause brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage, as well as permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities. Lead poisoning is rarely fatal, but medical workers in Nigeria reported that the lead concentration in the Zamfara State ore is so toxic that in 2010 in villages such as Abare, Dareta, Duza, Sunke, Tungar Daji, Tungar Guru, and Yargalma, the mortality rate was estimated as high as 40 percent among children who showed symptoms of lead poisoning.