Lead Poisoning in Nigeria

This week, Human Rights Watch reports on a continuing lead-poisoning crisis in Zamfara state in northwestern Nigeria.  Hundreds of children have died, thousands have been sickened, and many more are in danger of disabling neurologic problems.  They need chelation therapy, which removes lead from the body by binding lead ions and allowing lead to leave the body in the urine.

The situation has to do with gold mining, an important industry in that part of the country.  A 2010 Business Week article explains (with text and video) how small-scale gold mining and processing can be especially toxic to the environment and dangerous for children.

The problem isn’t new: it has been going on for a couple of years, at least.  The Blacksmith Institute has been doing emergency cleanup in Zamfara.  Here’s what they have to say about the situation:

  • THE LEAD POISONING OUTBREAK IN NIGERIA IS UNPRECEDENTED.
  • HUNDREDS OF CHILDREN HAVE DIED, MANY UNDER FIVER YEARS OLD.
  • VILLAGES ARE DOTTED WITH FRESH TINY GRAVES – ONE VILLAGE LOST ONE-THIRD OF ITS CHILD POPULATION.
  • MANY OTHERS ARE ILL, BLIND, DEAF, UNABLE TO WALK AND TALK.
  • MANY MORE AT RISK.
  • DEATHS WERE DISCOVERED WHEN OFFICIALS REALIZED THERE WERE VIRTUALLY NO CHILDREN IN SEVERAL VILLAGES during the country’s annual immunization program.
  • BLACKSMITH IS DOING EMERGENCY CLEANUP AT THE REQUEST OF THE NIGERIAN GOVERNMENT, working with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Doctors Without Borders and local authorities.

One human rights concern is access to chelation therapy for children who already have high blood-lead levels.  The HRW report notes that thousands of children need therapy.

Another concern is the possibility that lead exposure is leading to miscarriages among women in the area.

A final concern remains, even if lead-exposed kids do get chelation therapy and cleanup removes the threat to women of childbearing age for now: the problem will continue because children continue to work in the gold mines.  This practice is in violation of international conventions on child labor such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But it’s hard to see how to convince Nigeria to stop children from working in gold mines or on gold processing stations.  Gold fetches a high price on world markets:  over $1700 per ounce.  People need to make money.

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