Lead Poisoning Kills 160 and Sickens More
It's a horrible choice that impoverished Nigerians face: live in poverty without digging for gold or die digging for it.
The June 11 Dispatch reported that in Yargalma, grieving parents mourned for the death of their children. Most of the fatalities involved the youngest and most vulnerable members of the community.
"Children began falling ill months ago in Yargalma and a half-dozen other villages in this remote northern region on the cusp of the Sahara Desert. Some could not stand, and some went blind or deaf. Then, they began dying."
Doctors first thought it was malaria, but when the death toll went up and more kept getting ill, blood tests showed that it was lead poisoning. The levels of exposure was so high that most blood samples were off the scale on lead-screening machines.
The lead is unearthed by villagers digging for gold, which sells for $23 a gram. This is a great deal of money seeing that most people in this region live on less than $1 a day.
The process of extracting gold from the ore is simple. Villagers break the rocks with hammers, then, with a generator-powered machine, grind the smaller pieces into a powder which they then mix in a slurry of water and mercury to draw the gold particles together. Aside from the extremely high levels of lead in the ore, the mixture of water and mercury is itself highly toxic.
Villagers bring the ore back into their homes and, not knowing the toxicity, lay them on their floors and sleeping mats. At home and in communal areas, women chisel the rocks into smaller pieces while children play nearby, exposing the youths to lead-ridden dust and flakes.
An international team is racing to treat victims and remove the poison from villages, pastureland, and creek beds. Containment and cleanup is difficult because the lead is on the dirt floors of the villages' compound, in the muddy streets, and just about eveywhere.Continued on the next page