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Soaring lead levels kill in Nigeria

160 dead after gold miners unearth toxin

A child suffering from lead poisoning awaited treatment in Gusau, Nigeria, where mostly children have fallen ill. A child suffering from lead poisoning awaited treatment in Gusau, Nigeria, where mostly children have fallen ill. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)
By Jon Gambrell
Associated Press / June 13, 2010

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YARGALMA, Nigeria — Mound after tiny mound of red clay earth dots the cemetery on the outskirts of this impoverished Nigerian village where grieving parents come to pray.

Children began falling ill months ago here and in a half-dozen other villages in this remote northern region on the cusp of the Sahara. Some could not stand, some went blind or deaf.

Then they began dying.

Doctors suspected malaria. But they were wrong — after 160 died and hundreds more were ailing, blood tests revealed the real killer: lead unearthed by villagers digging for gold.

In a tragedy described by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “unprecedented’’ in its work with lead poisoning worldwide, most victims are children.

Many had played in homes or village common areas contaminated by lead. The level of exposure was so high that most blood samples were off the scale on lead-screening machines.

The existence of gold deposits in this had been long known. But it wasn’t until gold prices soared in recent years that villagers began heading into the bush to search for it.

Soon the poor herdsmen in rural Zamfara state could sell gold for more than $23 a gram, a huge sum in a country where most live on less than $1 a day.

“There is no other business one can do to make that much money,’’ said Haruna Musa, a 70-year-old elder in Yargalma.

The process of extracting gold from the ore is simple and dates back over a millennium. Villagers bash the rocks with hammers, then grind the smaller pieces into a powder, these days with the help of a generator-powered machine. The powder is added to a slurry mixture of water and mercury — itself a dangerous substance — to draw the gold particles together.

However, this time the ore brought back to the villages in Zamfara contained extremely high levels of lead. Fathers carried the precious rocks home to store inside their mud-walled compounds, sometimes leaving them on sleeping mats.

The work of breaking the rocks often fell to their wives. The women of the Muslim villages would chisel the rocks into smaller pieces as their young children played nearby. Dust and flakes accumulated in the villages’ communal areas, which children run through.

An international team of doctors and hazardous waste specialists arrived in Zamfara in mid-May and is racing to treat victims and remove the poison from villages, pastureland, and creek beds.

“This is as bad as it gets,’’ said Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute, a US group leading cleanup efforts.

On Thursday, local farmers wearing white coveralls, surgical masks, and latex gloves used picks and shovels to dig up the floors of a contaminated mud-walled compound in the village of Dareta. Ore processing sites lay abandoned, the equipment sitting idle as rainwater washed contaminated soil into a pond.

Cleanup efforts have not even begun in Yargalma.

At the village cemetery on Wednesday, Rabiu Mohammed knelt among the dozens of fresh child-sized graves, grief etched on his face. A son and a daughter are buried here.

Children, particularly those under 5, are most susceptible to lead poisoning because their brains are developing. High levels of exposure can damage the brain and nervous system. In severe cases, it can lead to seizures, coma, and death.

A lead level of more than 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood often requires hospitalization. Screening machines at a hospital in Bukkuym, about 12 miles from Yargalma, generally read up to about 65 micrograms.

In northern Nigeria, nearly “all of the blood samples read higher than the machine could measure,’’ said Dr. Jenny Mackenzie, an Australian volunteering with the aid agency Doctors Without Borders.

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