For some, it already is too late to reverse serious neurological damage, said Dr. 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 uncovered the scandal in 2010 but nothing was done until this year about the worst-affected village, Bagega, because the federal government did not provide a promised $3 million. 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. Of them, 267 are severely contaminated and will get chelation — 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. The children will have to be treated for one to two years.
The Moscow, Idaho-based foundation advised Nigeria's northern Zamfara state government and oversaw the 5 ½-month cleanup, or remediation, of Bagega that ended two weeks ago.
The poisoning caused by artisanal mining from a gold rush killed at least 400 children. 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. Many took the rocks that carried high concentrations of lead into their homes for processing. The poisoning was facilitated because the particular lead compounds are very toxic and easily absorbed into the body, unlike other forms of lead.
Villagers initially tried to hide the deaths, fearing the government would stop their illegal mining. Government officials initially reacted by trying to enforce a ban on illegal mining but when that did not work, they promised to find other sources of income for villagers, but nothing has happened in a country where corruption is endemic. Villagers still say they would rather die of lead poisoning than poverty. Villagers make 10 times as much money mining as they do from farming in an area suffering erratic rainfall because of climate change. Despite its remote location, the booming economy attracted people from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to Bagega. In addition, cattle herders and nomads came here to water their animals at a reservoir so dangerously contaminated it killed goats and cows.
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 environmental scientist Simba Tirima said. His TerraGraphics Foundation has trained dozens of Nigerians to clean up any future contamination.