Gold mining leads to massive lead contamination, deaths in rural Nigeria

Living on Earth

For the past two years a medical disaster of historic proportions has been unfolding in remote villages in northern Nigeria.

The soaring price of gold sent villagers prospecting for the rare metal, but what the local miners found was rock laced with lead. Thousands of villagers have been exposed to massive levels of lead so far; 400 children have died from the neurotoxin, in what is believed to be the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.

Jane Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the disaster is far from over.

“There are still about 2,000 children who we know are now in need of urgent treatment. And there are also villages that have not been cleaned up,” she said.

Cohen also pointed out that the children who haven’t died don’t have much to celebrate. In fact, it’s extremely rare for lead poisoning to trigger death. Typically it causes is problems with cognitive development.

“The children who have not died but who have been exposed at a very high level, they will be affected by this for their entire lives,” Cohen said. “Additionally, we’re seeing high rates of miscarriage and a lot of impotence in these communities, as well. So it’s really affecting whole generations of children and families in the community.”

No one knew there was lead in the gold rocks and, in fact, Cohen said, it took scientists quite some time to determine that the gold rocks were the source of the lead.

Lead levels vary from home to home in these Nigerian communities, but they’re uniformly high. In one home, Cohen said, lead levels were about 72,000 parts per million. Levels of 400 parts per million are considered the maximum safe level.

“These are homes where there are numerous children who are crawling around on the ground and putting their hands in their mouths and we know that in this area there are still children who are convulsing, children who need to be rushed for medical care,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the broad-scale contamination is due to small-scale gold mining. A quirk of geology in Nigeria is the primary source of the problem. Nigeria’s gold runs with lead, making contamination practically inevitable if careful attention isn’t paid.

“People take the rock ore out of the ground, they crush it and they grind it and then a dust is made from that and that dust is contaminated with lead,” Cohen said.

Cohen said most people have stopped the manual processing of gold, and especially don’t do at home any more, but the cross-contamination continues.

Just seven of the 16 known contaminated villages have been cleaned up thus far. 

“The biggest and most highly contaminated village, where we know there are 2,000 children right now who need treatment, that village has not been cleaned,” Cohen said.

Complicating clean-up matters, these villages are particularly remote. Cohen also said that many of the homes themselves, which are typically made from mud, are contaminated. Cleaning them may be as involved as tearing them down.

“It’s a difficult process but it’s not impossible and it’s also something that once you train people, they can really do it. It doesn’t have to be, you know, really highly trained experts,” Cohen said.

But cleaning up the environment or treating the children really isn’t enough, Cohen said, unless something is done to encourage safer mining practices. That’s where remediation has to start, in order to be effective.

All told, Cohen said it’ll take $4 million to $5 million to clean up the entire problem.

“It’s a commitment, but it’s not overwhelming for a government like Nigeria,” Cohen said. “But until the government makes that commitment to show them how this mining can be done safely, people will still be mining and putting their families at risk.”

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