31 Death and the kids of Zamfara

First published in 234NEXT in October 2010[1]

Four months ago, news broke of the deaths of 163 children in Zamfara State, Nigeria. Interestingly the cause of death, attributed to lead poisoning, was not ascertained by Nigerian health officials but by an international humanitarian NGO, Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).

Since that announcement we have received reports of the death toll rising to about 400 kids. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

So far the responses of government have been twofold: a quick announcement reiterating the banning of illegal mining, and also that the area was being decontaminated. What has been termed illegal mining is actually a demonstration of a lack of seriousness on the critical issue of resource management as well as environmental management and protection. Mining of any sort is a hazardous activity. This includes legalised oil and gas exploitation that grimly sends many Nigerians to untimely graves through pollutions and through violence. This suggests that the issue is more fundamental that the legality or otherwise of the activities.

We are also concerned about claims relating to the decontamination of the environment of the polluted communities. The sort of reported casual announcements give a sense of false security to the hapless local people and also a false impression suggesting the existence of acceptable government action. With years of unregulated artisanal mining in Zamfara State and other mineral rich areas, there is an urgent need for relevant government agencies to conduct serious environmental investigations with a view to mitigating the impacts. Outlawing artisanal mining without provision of employment to the army of the unemployed will neither stop the activity nor detoxify the environment.

The tragic decimation of the children of Dareta Village in Anka LGA and Yar Garma in Bukkuyum LGA must be treated with the seriousness it deserves and steps taken to halt it. It should also be understood that simply closing down artisanal mines does not mean that the environment is no longer toxic. In fact, the impacts being noticed now could have resulted from historical lead poisonings in the area. This also suggests that disaster possibly lurks in those poor and neglected communities.

Some community people do not even believe that the deaths are results of lead poisoning or any other fall-out of mining activities. Muazu Marafa, a community spokesperson at Yar Garma, for instance, told environmental monitors in June that they do not believe that lead used in the mining process was responsible for deaths in the community because they had been using it for over many decades. In a nation where post mortems are rare and where people are content to say that their relatives died after a brief illness, we see that much work needs to be done to realign attitudes to the realities of available modern knowledge.

Where are the regulatory agencies?

Besides struggling with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) over who has oversight over what territories, it is essential for the Standard Organisation to take a serious look at an existing threat to public health from further lead poisoning in Nigeria. For one, many countries have phased out leaded petrol and in Nigeria the toxic product is the norm. This means that apart from the visible smoke bellowing from the ancient automobiles on our streets, people are inhaling invisible toxins from even the clean exhaust pipes.

Another sore area that needs the focus of the SON is the unacceptably high level of lead in the paints manufactured, sold and used in Nigeria. A recent study by some non-governmental organisations revealed that Nigerian paints contain levels of lead several times above acceptable limits set by the World Health Organisation and that they rank among the highest levels of lead in paints in the world. The paints tested in the exercise include samples from the biggest multinational paint manufactures in Nigeria. What this means is that the threat of lead poisoning is everywhere in Nigeria, on the streets, in our schools, homes, hospitals, everywhere. We have heard of the death of over 400 children in Zamfara State. It is known that lead can absorbed by ingestion, inhalation, and via the skin. Its impacts range from minor irritations and fatigue to others such as gastrointestinal disturbances, neuromuscular dysfunction, personality changes, cerebral oedema, renal failure, and gout.

How many more kids are on the throes of death? How many more are still being poisoned even today? How about the adults who are more resistant to the poison and so remain alive but have their mental capacities severely compromised? Decontamination of the polluted communities requires more than simply closing the mine pits and carting away top soils from obviously impacted areas. There is urgent need for deeper examination of even the soil strata to ascertain the reach of the elements. The fact that water ponds on which the local people depend are also impacted means an urgent need for safe water supply. Shallow wells will simply spread the deaths further. The communities of Zamfara State require proper pipe borne water supply as life saving measures that go beyond political party logos painted on crumbling walls of community huts. Indeed, with the level of pollution and the deaths recorded and still expected, it would not be a radical idea to relocate the communities to safer locations. No effort should be spared in tackling the lead menace to save the lives of the kids of Zamfara State.


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