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Lead poisoning: Story behind Zamfara tragedy

But their joy in finding gold proved to be a short-lived one. Eight months ago, they finished excavating an old gold mine and moved to…

But their joy in finding gold proved to be a short-lived one. Eight months ago, they finished excavating an old gold mine and moved to a new one in Yargalmal. It was a rich mine and each villager who works there makes not less than a N100, 000 every week. Business was good and every household had a stone-grinding machine in front of it where the men crush the rocks and the women work inside the confines of their home sieving the crushed rock to extract the precious gold dust that promises a life of prosperity. But while they were harvesting cash, four weeks ago they started harvesting death. The gold ore they were processing from the new mine was contaminated with lead, a dangerous poison.

 Mohammed Bello, the Village Head of Dareta told Weekly Trust: “When a child wakes up from sleep he will start convulsing and foaming in the mouth, then he would collapse suddenly and stop breathing. Some children last for a day before giving up the ghost, some last for two days, writhing in pain and foaming in the mouth before they die. They never live beyond two days. We were at a lost, trying to comprehend why our children were getting seizures all of a sudden and dying before our eyes.”

Bello lost two of his children, Ashimu (who is nine-months-old) and Ibrahim (who is a year-and-seven-months-old). Shafiu his three-year-old son became mentally ill after collapsing one morning. His one-and-a-half-year-old son Ibrana is also sick. Ibrana should thank the combined team of the Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), the Blacksmith Institute of New York and officials from the Zamfara State ministries of health, environment and water resources who were alerted by doctors from the MSF about the epidemic that by conservative estimates have so far claimed the lives of over three hundred children or probably much more. A villager in Abare says after they buried 80 children, they stopped counting.

When the seizures was becoming widespread and the death toll was rising the MSF doctors in the villages and the doctors in the Bukkuyum General Hospital were at a lost too as to the cause of the deaths. Villagers say the children were given drips and get some relief, but they soon die. An anonymous health official who spoke to Weekly Trust says blood samples were taken from the victims and taken back to major research centres in the country and abroad while the epidemic was still claiming lives but a true diagnoses of the cause of death was not found, until the blood samples were taken to Germany and the cause of death was found to be the high concentration of lead in the blood of the children who were afflicted.

The mystery is broken

“Basically, because they started processing gold ore in the village and in their compounds, and some that they were processing recently have lead ore in them in addition to gold, the lead was deposited in the village,” says Ms Cassey Bartrem, an environmental engineer with Terragraphics Environmental Engineering based in Idaho, U.S.A who was representing the Blacksmith Institute of New York in helping to clean up the lead-contaminated environment around the villages.

She says: “Children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning because they have smaller bodies and as they are growing they are looking for minerals. In addition, children are always putting their hands in their mouths, ingesting dust. When they put their hands in the ground and eat food, they are getting soil in their mouth and the soil there has lead in them.”

Bartrem and her team are now carrying out a site assessment in the village of Dareta, trying to find all the places where there is lead contamination, especially in the sites where they are processing ore in front of their houses. “We are testing every home and everywhere where there is a grinder,” she says. “We remove all the soil and test the soil. When we find any contamination we dig up the contaminated soil, which we are gathering and will be taking to a landfill. We bring in clean soil and put it on the top. That way the children are no longer exposed to the contaminated soil. That should bring the lead level down. There is also a treatment going on which the MSF is running along with the ministry of health because there is a certain drug that can be used to remove lead from children’s body.”

The treatment centre is at the Bukkuyum General Hospital where so far 58 children were on admission receiving treatments. Because of the outbreak of new cases, the hospital is thinking of expanding its facilities to accommodate over a hundred more. There are now plans to erect tents within the hospital to provide more facilities to detoxify the patients. But health officials say no matter the treatment given to the children, they are damaged for life because they can never be cured completely. “Even if it does not kill them,” says Ms Bartrem, “in low levels, lead can affect their development. It affects the developing brain, it causes behavioral problems and IQ deficit. There is long term health repercussions.”

A scary scenario presented by the current deaths in the villages is not only the children are affected by high lead levels in their blood stream. Even the adults living in the villages have been contaminated, especially the miners among them. But because of the emergency of the current crisis, only children are being given attention, Weekly Trust findings reveal. Adults in the village complain of body weakness and vomiting. Some say they noticed for a long time that whenever they come out of the mine pits, they couldn’t manage an erection for three days that would enable them have sexual intercourse.

A story of greed

But all these tales of woe will not discourage the villagers from continuing with their newfound trade of mining gold, even though it is done illegally. They stated that they would never leave mining. So strong is the lure of gold. Aliyu Sani, 45, has lost three of his children to the epidemic (Hauwawu who was three years old, Nusaiba who was one year old and a younger Hauwawu who is one and a half year old). Despite his losses, he says: “We won’t leave mining. It is more lucrative than our farming. It is our saving grace since the government abandoned us.” It is the same view that was shared by Aliyu Alhaji Musa, 23, who lost his 19-months-old daughter, Hadiza to the epidemic. Nine other members of his family who are children of his brothers have also fainted and foamed in the mouth and lost their lives to the epidemic. But he says he would be willing to try his luck in another gold mine again; he is not leaving the trade.

 A constant refrain by all the villagers is they earn nothing less than a hundred thousand naira each from the illegal mining by the time they sell to their dealers who come from Gusau, the state capital. Another scary scenario: the villagers say the gold that has been taken from the contaminated mine has been taken to Gusau and other places by the dealers. So far no one is talking about the repercussions to human health of the gold sold to the dealers who will equally sell to other dealers and so on.

The villagers defend their trade in gold saying it has improved their livelihood. “We are now able to buy food, livestock and provide zinc sheets to roof our houses,” says Bello, the Village Head. But there wasn’t any evidence of the presence of such wealth. The houses with zinc roofing couldn’t have been more than just a dozen. The others are thatched and all the houses are mud houses. The poverty all around is palpable.

The greed goes further: when officials from the ministry of environment tried to get the villagers to help in the excavation of healthy soils to replace the contaminated ones, they asked to be paid first by the government. When they officials named a figure they turned it down, boasting that they make much more with their illegal mining. They only agreed when the officials paid them more.

A new mystery

So where is the money? The villagers answer that it is the wealth of Kharuna, so it lacks blessing. Kharuna is that stupendously rich man which the Holy Qur’an relates, is an arrogant man who is opposed to Prophet Musa (Moses) and did everything to stop him from propagating the message of God. For his punishment, God caused all his wealth to be swallowed up with him by the earth. The villagers believe the gold they mine is part of such wealth. It is the only admission by them that what they are doing has some element of illegality attached to it.

The illegal trade in gold is a long chain involving not just the dealers who brave the rugged terrain of the village to trade but also Chinese miners who come to the village in their helicopters. The Chinese are the ones who provide an avenue to export the precious metals abroad, Weekly Trust findings reveal. Some of the villagers say the presence of the Chinese is a normal occurrence. They even landed when the current epidemic broke in the village.

The conspiracy spreads wider were sources say the Chinese have the backing of some powerful people in the state who benefit from the illicit trade. An official with the Federal Ministry of Solid Minerals told Weekly Trust under condition of anonymity that so negligent is the government about the illegality of the mining going on around that they have never visited the mines in Anka until the present epidemic broke out. It was then a director and his team who Weekly Trust saw going to the villages was dispatched quickly to come and see what is happening.

Says Ms Bartrem: “The whole problem is a big problem. Mining is their livelihood. You can’t shut down mining. What we want to do is to encourage people not to bring the processing into their homes. That can solve the immediate problems. If people continue to bring materials here that contain lead, we have not solved the big problem.”

The villagers have moved their processing activities from their homes to the outskirts of the village, Weekly Trust observed. But while it has managed the epidemic, an anonymous health official say the doctors with the MSF who were previously stationed in the village, sleeping there, have been told to move out of the village after 5.00 PM to avoid exposing themselves to contamination. A government lodge has been provided for them in the town of Anka. Weekly Trust can also reveal authoritatively that two new cases of children with lead poisoning have been found in the village of Dareta while they were in the village speaking to the people, even though health officials are keeping it hushed. They will be taken to the hospital today. The end to this toxic crisis might still be a long way away.

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