In this 21st century of technological, medical and scientific advancement, mass lead poisoning is supposed to be a tragedy of the 19th and not the 21st century. In Nigeria, the story is completely different considering the massive lead poisoning which occurred early 2010 in Zamfara state, an arid poor region of north-western Nigeria.
I would like to briefly discuss the source, exposure pathways and adverse health effects of lead before reviewing the issue of lead poisoning in Zamfara.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal and occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. Its uses include car batteries, as pigments in paints, dyes, ceramic glazes, pesticides, ammunition, pipes, cable covers, use with other metals to make alloys, metal products (solder and pipes), sheets to protect people from X-ray radiation and until now added to gasoline to increase octane ratings.
Lead often enters the environment either through releases in the course of mining or recycling of lead and lead compounds. It can as well be released into the air by burning coal, oil or lead containing waste.
Exposure pathways could be through inhalation, ingestion (water, plants, animals), mother to child while in-utero, breast milk or skin (in low concentration).
Lead poisoning could either be acute or chronic depending on the amount, duration and route of exposure. The adverse health implications include: convulsions, neurological damage, impaired IQ, anaemia, neuromuscular disorders, and chronic headaches, cognitive defects, memory loss, infertility, miscarriages, teratogenic effects and hypertension.
Lead could be tested in water contamination using commercially available kits. Analysis of lead in whole blood is the most common and accurate method of assessing lead exposure in humans. The acceptable level of lead in the system by the CDC Atlanta, USA is 10µg/dL.
Zamfara is a poor state blessed with abundant mineral resources. It has enormous gold and lead deposits but unfortunately illegal mining has taken over the proceeds which is suppose to go into the state government’s treasury. This illegal mining, in which women make up more than 60 percent of the miners (thus their contact with contaminants affects the whole family), has great environmental consequences eg destruction of farmlands and distortion of the livelihood of agrarian communities.
In a recent report released by the UK International Development Department, it states that “Income and gender inequality are very high and some states in northern Nigeria have among the worst maternal mortality and girls’ primary school enrolment rates in the world.” Nigeria is sub-Sahara’s second largest economy, but ranked 154 out of 179 countries in the 2008 Human Development Index. It is also estimated that 72 million people live on less than a dollar a day.
It all started when villagers rushing for gold unwittingly freed lead particles from rocks using their bare hands thus polluting the environment with lead particles. This resulted in the contamination of soils and communal water supplies eg streams and ponds. The area of contamination with lead was far larger than originally estimated and heavy rain spreading the toxic lead. It has been shown that lead poisoning has killed at least 400 children within 2010 but the toll may not yet be fully counted considering the fact that some deaths are not reported to authorities, a typical attitude of villagers in a third world setting. The lead poisoning remained until when officials started looking into the cause of high mortality of children which initially the locals attributed to malaria. It was in March-April 2010 when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) informed the Zamfara state Ministry of Health of an increasing number of childhood deaths and illness in villages in the area. The Zamfara health authorities informed the Federal Ministry of Health, who then sought the assistance of the country office of the World Health Organization (WHO), MSF and the United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in investigating this outbreak. Also, the Blacksmith Institute sent a team from Terra Graphics Environmental Engineering Inc to conduct an environmental assessment.
Since the lead poisoning incidence was reported, it has been estimated that at least 10,000 people of which 2,000 children under 5 years of age are in acute danger of death or severe illness from seven villages. It was in June same year when Medecins Sans Frontires, in collaboration with the Federal and State Ministries of Health, WHO and Centre for Disease Control (CDC), started providing emergency treatment for children especially the under 5s who are the most vulnerable group.
In one of his writings, Joseph Amon of the Human Rights Watch says “The tragedy unfolding in Zamfara is not a simple act of nature. Rather, it’s the latest testament to the Nigerian government’s failure to make the health of its citizens a priority”. It is true to also say that considering its riches, impressive economic record in the comity of nations and its status as one of the top 10 world’s biggest producers of oil and gas, Nigeria has the worst public health indicators when compared with especially its African neighbours.
Nigeria’s health care is often underfunded and mismanaged leaving the local health care worst affected, another reason why outbreaks of any sort would easily progress to the point of killing hundreds of children before health authorities could step in.
Conclusively, it is my view that tragedies of this type could be avoided in future by increase in Government’s investment in Public health care, increasing transparency in governance and putting necessary mechanisms in place to counter corruption with a view to ensuring that Nigeria’s natural resource wealth is well protected for the good of all.
Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.