By Tayo Olaleye
In a small mining town in the North of Nigeria a few years ago, 100 children died rapidly within days and weeks of each other. No one could explain definitely why these children died. At first the culprit was malaria and then people thought it was another unnamed disease. Months later, it was found that these children all died through exposure to lead from the mines where their parents worked and where they sometimes worked themselves.
Lead, a heavy metal, prides itself in being soft and malleable; it has been used over the years in plumbing and paints. Recently, due to the toxicity of the metal, it was banned as an ingredient in paints yet it remains deep underground waiting to cause havoc for those who are the most vulnerable, children and their pregnant mothers. The toxicity of lead is the root of the lead poisoning epidemic that continues to be a problem in the Northern part of Nigeria.
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Zamfara, a state in the Northwest of Nigeria, has been especially hit by deadly lead poisoning. However, a report which expressed concerns about the impending death of ‘hundreds’ more was curiously down played by Zamfara’s government expressing that such fears were wrong. Fast forward three years, this outbreak has been tagged the ‘worst lead poisoning epidemic in Northern Nigeria’ with the death of over 400 children. Over 4,000 children are also thought to remain contaminated. The people of Zamfara get exposed to toxic concentrations of lead whilst mining for gold, which is thought to generate revenue of up to $0.5billion annually. Gold mining, although illegal, remains the main means to earn a living for the people of Bagega, Zamfara. With smashes of rocks and pebbles, which contain gold, lead-infused dust gets released into the atmosphere.
Lead is a poison, which accumulates in the body following continuous exposure. A high concentration of lead usually accumulates in the liver, bones, kidney and brain; it is also capable of being passed to an unborn child through the placental barrier in a pregnant woman. This eventually leads to a non-exhaustive set of symptoms which include: seizures, damages to the brain, kidney and nervous system, bone-related pains, coma and in extreme cases, death. Tomi Oladipo, a BBC reporter presented a case where Umaima, a four year old can neither speak nor hear, due to an extreme case of lead poisoning.
Treatment of lead poisoning is more effective if caught early; it involves the use of chelation therapy to sequester the lead ions from the blood and cause the body to excrete the poison through urine. As part of the clean up program or remediation the top layer of the soil in the worst affected areas are excavated and contaminated water is treated. The humanitarian agency, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), is working hard to help the people of Zamfara and they urge the government to do more to treat affected patients. Remediation as well as long-term treatment of contaminated patients is currently on-going. It is imperative to educate the people of Zamfara on the dangers that surround gold mining and the importance of protective equipment such as face masks. Following the recent release of the long awaited funding from the government, MSF has now begun to treat children with acute concentrations of lead. With this renewed effort to tackling this epidemic, it is hoped that the number of fatalities would be drastically reduced.