The incidence of Lead poisoning which has claimed the lives of over 1,000 children, and left several others brain-damaged is not about to stop; as Ruth Tene who spoke with environmental experts observes.
The incidence of Lead poisoning which started in 2010 in Zamfara State and claimed the lives of no fewer than 1,000 children and still counting is not about to end. According to experts, several factors have continued to hinder the efforts of government and humanitarian organisations.
Recently the Head of Mission, Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) in Zamfara state, Mr. Evan Gayton asserted that about 1500 children were brain damaged as a result of very large concentration of lead poison found in them.
Lead is defined as a naturally occurring metal found in the earth’s crusts, mined, processed and used in commercial and household products for thousands of years which when it findsv its way into the human body becomes poison and harmful to people.
Once lead gets into the human environment, there is no way to destroy it or make it harmless; therefore control to exposure is said to be more important than seeking a latter cure.
But because Lead in paint has become common it is advised that if the paint is heavy, people should not use it, even though it last longer but it is poisonous and the effect will last forever.
Lead is most dangerous to young children because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing, it can interfere with normal brain development and any level of lead exposure causes hard times, low concentration and poor coordination of the faculties without showing any external symptoms.
Lead poisoning can affect unborn children if the mother is exposed while low levels of exposure leads to high blood pressure, infertility, short term memory loss, lack of control over feet among others. Even though children are more affected, adults can also die from lead poisoning.
While illegal mining activities have chiefly been pointed to as the reason for the poisoning which occurred and is re-occurring in several communities of Zamfara state, other factors have since been highlighted to include poverty, crude mining tools, greed, governments' lack of concern as well as poor education of the masses on the effect of their mining activities which continue to remain challenges which the concerned communities will continue to contend with.
Illegal mining activities have occurred in Nigeria for over 2,000 years from basic clays to base metals and gold.
From 1970 till date, Illegal mining has continued to dominate mining in Nigeria as it accounts for 90% of solid minerals mining in the country. Minerals commonly mined include but are not limited to gold, Barite, limestone, gemstones and gypsum, as it is, more than 107 illegal mine sites have been identified in the country with over 200,000 people directly involved.
Mining is of various forms and is classified into small, medium, and large scale mining, based on the number of people employed, size of concession area, annual income and degree of capitalisation or mechanisation.
According to Alex Abaito Ohikere, the director general of the Nigerian Steel Raw Materials Exploration Agency who spoke exclusively with LEADERSHIP SUNDAY; “by now, everyone should know the main cause of lead poisoning. You know gold is hardly seen in hand specimen until detailed analysis are carried out, the gold that they are mining in Zamfara from the rock crystals and the method of mining is the main problem”.
“The people mine it in a crude form, they carry it from the site to process, they carry the ore to their homes to crush, using ordinary crushing machines and this is why I keep saying that the level of our mining sector is a little bit crude”.
He said; “in fact, most of the jobs that need to be done by machines at mining sites are being done manually by you carrying these rock forms to the house and using the ordinary tomato grinding machines to pulverise the gold containing rock to disaggregate and remove the trapped gold”.
He recalled a BBC story which carried pictures of the processing saying; “you could see the dust, that engulf the environment during the pounding and being inhaled by the people. In such cases you cannot stop people from inhaling the Lead dust which is poisonous, maybe they had been inhaling it for some time, and the water around may be contaminated”.
He maintained that the level of technology and development coupled with people quest for quick money as a result of hunger and lack of employments are the main reasons the youth in the community took advantage of to continue mining illegally.
From Ohikere's perspective, it can be deduced that greed is one of the primary causes of illegal mining activities as the need for quick money is a syndrome many find irresistible, many will prefer to die in their quest for money, rather than follow legal processes, and as long as greed continues to exist, then the issues of illegal mining will continue to be a problem.
Poverty and unemployment is another reason which has been blamed for the continual spread of poisoning as many unemployed hands continue to use the opportunity of illegal mining to get funds, even at the expense of their lives.
Once they see that there is gold there, they take any risk to get it out and sell, it is like cash, once you get gold, you can easily sell it, it is not like Iron ore, that is the problem with Zamfara, the method of mining and processing is very crude and harmful.
A Source who spoke to LEADERSHIP SUNDAY on grounds of anonymity said the problems will continue because government is not concerned and has done very little or nothing to curtail the activities of illegal miners.
He said the annoying thing is when children are exposed to lead poisoning, it is not usually detected early as the doctors continue to treat the child for malaria and fever, because the symptoms come as convulsions and by the time they are able to detect it, the child has been poisoned, and that child is often times beyond help.
The Minister of Mines and Steel Development Arc. Mohammed Musa Sada who also spoke to LEADERSHIP SUNDAY maintained that the lead poisoning incidence would take a while to be eradicated, because the people continue to ignore governments’ efforts to nip it in the bud.
The Minister maintained that the miners have refused to use protective gears even after government have provided the gears to them for free. He expressed the regret that; “the miners collect the boots and gloves provided for them and hang them in their homes unused and if queried, they claim they will use them”.
One of the efforts of government according to him has been the removal of contaminated soil, and replacing it, but even as this continues, the illegal mining operations continue to thwart such efforts of government.
He said: “massive campaigns and awareness programmes were on by both the federal and state governments to ensure the people were educated on the dangers posed by illegal mining activities and it is hoped the people will take precautions to ensure they are protected against the dangers they pose”.
Sada also maintained that “government was set to clamp down hard on illegal miners as they continue to endanger the lives of citizens in the community and flout government orders”.
The effects of these illegal mining activities aside the lead poisoning is astonishing as even the environment is not spared.
Often times the environment is damaged beyond redemption which then leads to serious environmental degradation including erosion, flooding, deep gulley’s and trenches which make the environment impossible for farming, live stock rearing and residential purposes.
The process of reclamation which is supposed to follow mining activities are totally ignored as farmers and miners dig up the land for their deposits and walk away without making efforts to artificially reclaim the land.
Speaking with Mahesh Soni a consultant geologists with Earthstone Resource, an international mining outfit in Indonesia, prospecting for Coal and Iron Ore in Nigeria, he said the inherent dangers of environmental degradation are not peculiar to Nigeria alone as even India which has larger mining activities faced the same challenge.
He said: “Ultimately, the mining industry is fraught with environmental destruction but somewhere, we certainly need to have a sort of balance between how much you can go with destruction. As you are starting the mining of a place there is the need to reclaim it”.
Soni was of the opinion that it was the responsibility of regulatory agencies, which in this case is the ministry of Mines and Steel Development, which is the regulatory body to ensure that miners clean up and rejuvenate the environment through planting of trees and grasses after a mining activity.
The geologist said: “In India efforts are made deliberately to clean the environment as much as possible as taking out materials from the surface without replacing it will destroy the environment and the vegetation”.
He advised that from the point of mining, it was necessary to begin to reclaim that area by planting lots of trees and grasses, which will hold the loose soil and make it compact within the period of two years.
In most mining communities, what is found are deep gulley’s, trenches and unparallel ground made unfit for farming and other human activities, this is because the surfaces (fertile top soil) are already wiped off, thereby exposing the environment to all forms of environmental hazards.
The dangers of these illegal activities can never be over emphasised as the dangers are inherent in all human and animal life, but most worrisome is the fact that the effects are more on innocent children who are unable to protect themselves against the dangers of environmental poisoning as a result of illegal mining activities.
With the rising death tolls and the imminent danger of brain damage, it is advised that capacity building is not limited to only communities affected but even those yet to be affected, because with the diversification and the nation’s wealth in solid minerals, more and more communities continue to discover minerals and illegal activities are also on the rise.
One would also recommend that massive campaigns in all mass media be carried out to ensure communities are educated both in English and the various dialects or immediate community's mother tongue so as to educate the people from the grassroot.
Also, the issue of illegal mining should not be treated off-handedly as they endanger human and animal life, this is because the environment and water is poisoned and thus exposing children, adults and livestock alike to the poisons set off by the illegal miners.
Without any doubt and as long as the illegal activities of miners continue, lives will continue to be endangered and Zamfara state will continue to suffer the consequences, until more drastic measures are taken against illegal miners in the mining communities at large.