07:17 am
30 May 2017

The Lead Poisoning Crisis in Zamfara State, Nigeria

By Udoka Okafor Nigerian Correspondent 

The 2010 Lead Poisoning Crisis in Zamfara State

In 2010, a team from ‘Doctors without borders’ discovered that a lead poisoning epidemic had broken out in Zamfara State, Nigeria. Their investigation begun after a reportedly high mortality rate of children in villages in Zamfara was noted. Lead poisoning is highly toxic to humans, but it has been found to be especially toxic to children. According to Environment and Health, lead poisoning can occur through such means as inhalation, ingestion, and in-utero. Furthermore, they went on to state some of the adverse health consequences of lead poisoning, which includes, “convulsions, neurological damage, impaired IQ, anemia, neuromuscular disorders, and chronic headaches, cognitive defects, memory loss, infertility, miscarriages, teratogenic effects and hypertension.”

During this lead poisoning crisis in Zamfara in 2010, approximately 3600 children were affected, and of the aforementioned affected children, over 400 children died, and many children were left paralyzed and blind. Furthermore, The World Health Organization concluded that over 180 villages and 30,000 people might have been affected by the lead poisoning crisis. A newsletter stated that many of the children “had gastro-intestinal upsets, skin rashes, changes of mood; some were lethargic, some partially paralyzed, some had become blind and deaf. The worst affected were coming into the small Ministry of Health clinic with seizures that could last for hour and would sometimes lead to coma and then often to death”.

The Causes of the Lead Poisoning Crisis in Nigeria

Overall, the 2010 lead poisoning crisis in Nigeria proved to be highly fatal, which lead to an investigation into its causes. The answer to the question posed, gold! Gold mining is a huge source of income in Zamfara State, and has gone on to become a stable source of income for many families in the State. This is due in large part to the ever-increasing demand for gold in the national and international markets of the world’s global economy. The gold miners extract gold and process it themselves through unsafe and unregulated means. The mining of gold leads to the release of a dusty by-product that is heavily contaminated with lead. According to Environment 360, “Artisanal gold mining — which is often unpermitted or illegal — typically involves manual labor, both in the mines and in extracting ore by breaking and grinding rock.” It is through this process of artisanal gold mining that the lead contaminated gold dust particles are released into the environment and into the water supply of communities in Zamfara State.

Environment 360 went on to further note that “child labor is common in these mines, and very young children can be exposed to mining’s dust and chemical hazards when they accompany parents to work sites.” And, as was previously stated children are exceptionally more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. It was further noted by Environment 360 that “much of the grinding of leaded rocks is done by women inside homes where there are many children.” This leaves women and children more vulnerable to the lead poisoning crisis, and since lead poisoning can occur in-utero, fetuses are also rendered especially vulnerable to the crisis, as women are more likely to engage in the process of grinding gold ores. A report by the Human Rights Watch stated that the lead crisis in Nigeria is “considered the worst outbreak in modern history”.

Larger Structural Causal Issues Related to the Lead Poisoning Crisis

As of 2010, over 72 million people in Nigeria live below the poverty line, and it has been reported that the figure could be as high as 70% of the population that lives below this line. Zamfara’s economy predominantly relies on Agriculture, but the food crisis in Zamfara has led people to seek their source of income somewhere else, gold. In hindsight, the actions of the gold miners in Zamafara seem reckless but when one is living from hand to mouth and one’s only thought is on how to feed themselves and their family, it seems rational that they will take up any immediate source of income they find.

Nigeria’s social welfare services, such as education and healthcare services are also ill developed. This leads to a slow response to health issues such as the lead poisoning crisis, and thus to more health risks and deaths when a crisis on this scale ensues. The federal government in Nigeria allocates just 6% of its budget to healthcare services while the state of Zamfara allocates just 3% of its budget to health care services. Needless to say, the healthcare sector in Nigeria has suffered from under-development, which is why it took workers from Doctors without Borders to identify and begin treatment for the lead poisoning crisis.

Furthermore, due to governmental corruption and indifference, there were no federal standards set out at the time of the crisis in 2010 and this lead to the propagation of illegal and unregulated mining. It was this lack of enforced regulatory standards that directly led to the unsafe mining of gold, which led to the lead poisoning crisis in Nigeria. Thus, all of the direct, indirect, institutional, and governmental actions that led to the lead poisoning crisis must be addressed in order to effectively deal with lead poisoning in Zamfara state and Nigeria as a whole.

The Issue of Lead Poisoning Continues Till This Day

This article has outlined the historical, political, social, and economic context of the 2010 lead poisoning crisis so that one may understand the latest reports about lead poisoning in Zamfara today. This month, Nigerian health officials reported that 28 children have been killed by lead poisoning due to illegal gold mining in Zamfara state, and many more children are sick because of it. Further, as The Star noted, the outbreak is in the same region were it occurred in 2010, which means that the aforementioned causes of the crisis has yet to be addressed. Children in Niger State also seem to be suffering from the same lead poisoning affecting children in Zamfara State.

The tragedy of this crisis lies not simply in the rate of child mortality but in the fact that it was wholly predictable. The 2010 lead poisoning crisis in Zamfara served as a warning to the state of Zamfara and to Nigeria as a whole. But, we did not heed that warning, and this is where we are today. This crisis must be addressed as a whole or else we risk more children dying or being left permanently ill because of it. We must address the economic circumstances of this crisis and the level of poverty in Zamfara and in Nigeria as a whole. But, we must also address the political and social circumstances that have led us to this immensely tragic place.