Bagega, the Nigerian village in Zamfara State that suffered one of the world’s worst recorded incidents of lead poisoning is now habitable and more than 1,000 contaminated children can now start receiving treatment, a doctor and a scientist from two international agencies said Friday.
For some, it already is too late to reverse serious neurological damage, Michelle Chouinard, Nigeria country director for Doctors Without Borders, told The Associated Press.
“Some children are blind, others paralyzed and many will struggle at school with learning disabilities,” she said.
Doctors Without Borders discovered the scourge in 2010 but nothing was done until this year because the federal government did not provide a promised $3 million, the group said.
The poisoning caused by artisanal mining from a gold rush killed at least 400 children, yet villagers still say they would rather die of lead poisoning than poverty, environmental scientist, Simba Tirima, said.
“The Villagers make 10 times as much money mining as they do from farming in an area suffering erratic rainfall because of climate change,” he said.
“Managing five landfills with some 13,000 cubic meters (nearly 460,000 cubic feet) of highly contaminated soil, and teaching villagers how to mine safely are major challenges to prevent new contamination,” he added.
At the peak of the gold rush, Tirima said, more than 1,000 itinerant miners and followers were camped around the village – deep in the countryside, beyond the reach of paved roads and electricity and quite cut off in the rainy season when dirt roads become impassable.
Despite its remote location, the booming economy attracted people from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to Bagega, which also drew many locals as a regional commercial centre with a primary and high school, a hospital and weekly market.
“The entire human population of 6,000 to 9,000 was exposed, including some 1,500 children under the age of 5,” he said.
“The more basic methods used to get at gold helped cause the poisoning. Some women used hammers to beat open rock ore. Others used some of the 60 grinding mills at a processing area adjacent to the village and water reservoir,” Tirima said.
Many also took the rocks that carried high concentrations of lead into their homes for processing and that the poisoning was facilitated because the particular lead compounds are very toxic and easily absorbed into the body, unlike other forms of lead.
Human Rights Watch said the death toll of 400 was only an estimate as villagers initially tried to hide the deaths, fearing the government would stop their illegal mining. The group said it was the worst epidemic of its kind in modern history.
“The government released money for the cleanup in February, Doctors Without Borders began prescreening in March and found that nearly every one of 1,010 children tested need therapy,”Chouinard said.
Of these figure, 267 are severely contaminated and will getchelation – where medication binds the lead to a child’s blood and helps them to eliminate it faster from their system.
All the children had more than the international standard maximum of 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. Some had as much as 700 micrograms per deciliter, she said, adding that the children will have to be treated for one to two years.
Government officials initially reacted by trying to enforce a ban on illegal mining. When that did not work, they promised to find other sources of income for villagers, but so far nothing has happened.