Kano — As the number of children known to have been poisoned by lead continues to mount, a UN team has recommended the government help communities clean up the informal gold-mining sector, rather than quash it altogether.
Some 400 children have died of lead poisoning over the past six months, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), but many thousands more are suspected to have been poisoned. Official figures will be released only once the US Center for Disease Control has finished its two-month survey.
The government banned artisanal gold-mining when high levels of lead contamination were found in Zamfara State in June 2010, but many villagers flouted the ban, and avoided informing health services of sick or dying children for fear of reprimand, said MSF.
Families also confined gold ore processing activities to their homes, partly to hide their activities, which increased the risk of young children being poisoned.
As a result, the number of affected children is believed to be much higher than initially reported.
“The effects of lead poisoning are life-long,” said Matthew Conway an adviser at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and UN Environment Programme, Joint Environment Unit. Lead poisoning causes lowered IQ, learning difficulties, behavioural disorders, high blood pressure, kidney damage, anaemia, muscle weakness, infertility in men and stillbirths in women, says MSF.
The sharp rise in lead-related deaths and illnesses was linked to a surge of cash going into the mining sector, said Conway, which led the practice to “gear up to near industrial levels”, he said, as families started buying industrial grinders, dynamite and large quantities of mercury to extract and process gold ore.
Ban now, not later
Mining should not be banned in the long term, said a 4 October report by OCHA and UNEP. “Do not ban mining: Focus on safer practices [that are] available and inexpensive; regulation that does not choke entrepreneurship; [and the] establishment of mining cooperatives that will enable [gold] ore to be stored and processed safely outside villages rather than within family compounds.”
But it must stop while villages are being decontaminated. In the village of Dareta, the team found high mercury levels in the air, suggesting communities have already resumed mining.
“We hope this is not the case, otherwise it will be a vicious circle of contamination and remediation,” said Ian von Lindern, head of TerraGraphics, a US-based environmental engineering firm that is decontaminating the worst-affected villages.
Dareta lost over 100 under-fives to lead poisoning between March and June 2010, Lindern said.
Protective clothing, rubber boots
Lindern said it would not take much technology to introduce safer mining techniques, but a change in attitude among miners was required.
“All it takes is the use of protective clothing, rubber boots and masks by the miners in the quarry and during processing,” he told IRIN. “Processing should be done as far away as possible from villages in places not accessible to children,” he added.
Miners should bathe straight after mining or ore processing, should change into clean clothes, and never bring any ore, mining implements or clothes they have worn while mining, into their villages, according to TerraGraphics. “Once they adhere to these simple precautions, there will hardly be any lead contamination in these villages,” said Lindern.
Nigerians should adopt best practice from elsewhere, such as Indonesia, said Conway, who called for workshops for miners on safe practices such as how to use mercury and safer alternatives to mercury.
The UN team analysed groundwater in five out of seven contaminated villages, finding drinking water in most public wells was contaminated above World Health Organization standards, with private wells even worse. But in the village of Kersa, where families had processed iron ore outside the village, water in the wells had safe levels of lead in them.
One idea the UN put forward is to encourage miners to form cooperatives whereby members pool money to run safe storage units so people can keep gold ore out of their homes. “People risk their lives to gather this stuff – they don’t want to just leave it outside where it can be stolen,” Conway pointed out.
But putting women out of danger is more problematic. They sift through gold dust in the privacy of their homes. Switching their work to a public space would be hard for many to accept in this traditional Islamic society.
Changing attitudes and practices in the long term requires funding, as does the immediate clean-up operation, said the UN team, which has called on the Nigerian government to declare the lead situation a “crisis” to attract international funding.
The UN gave US$2 million in seed funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) “but no one has yet stepped in to fill in the gaps,” said Conway. “The scope of the problem is much bigger. It is a complex situation and everyone needs to work hard over the long term to put it right.”
Some say the government itself should resource the clean-up and reform of artisanal mining.
One way to raise funds is to get ethical investors involved, Conway pointed out, since not only gold but the lead itself, can be marketed and made profitable.
TerraGraphics is able to decontaminate water sources if more funding comes through.