Lead poisoning epidemic due to artisanal mining

Thousands of children have been sickened in Zamfra State, Nigeria, due to lead poisoning from artisanal mining, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders estimates that 1,500 children in the village of Bagega have been suffering from lead poisoning since 2010.

Zamfara state has significant concentrations of heavy metals in the soil and rocks. Gold mining has occurred for decades, but until recently it was not widespread or profitable.

Since gold prices have risen, interest in mining in Zamfara state has increased. In artisanal mining, workers dig up rocks by hand, break them into pebbles with hammers, grind the pebbles to sand with flour mills, and extract gold from the sand using sluicing, panning, and mercury amalgamation, and in some cases, cyanidation.

Usually the health problems associated with artisanal mining are related to mercury or cyanide use; however, the gold-bearing deposits in Zamfara contain high concentrations of lead.

Crushing pebbles into sand in the dry-running flour mills produces enormous amounts of dust, which can be highly contaminated with lead. Lead can enter the body through the lungs or the digestive tract.

Doctors Without Borders wants miners to be given access to facilities and programs that allow them to safely mine without exposing themselves or others to toxic lead.

The non-profit has been pushing the government to act on a three-pronged plan that includes medical care, environmental remediation and safer mining practices.

“To effectively cut the pathways of lead contamination requires specialized expertise and equipment,” said Simba Tirima, a scientist with Terragraphics, an environmental engineering firm. “The people of Bagega need urgent assistance to provide a safe environment for their children.”

Image of gold miner working circa March 2010 in Shinyanga, Tanzania

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