Lead poisoning in Zamfara state, Nigeria: a review

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.

21 thoughts on “Lead poisoning in Zamfara state, Nigeria: a review

  1. I like the subject; it reminded me of a similar lead poisoning which occurred in Senegal in 2008 from used lead battery recycling plant. Well discussed!

  2. If we all keep highlighting and discussing issues of this magnitude wherever they are in especially the low and middle income economies, it will one day help draw the attention of our leaders. Well done, Doc!

  3. Thanks for this review. I would also like to add that high serum level of lead exceeding 10 microgram per ml is implicated in most cases of miscarriages in pregnant women, especially in communities who are exposed to lead. Furthermore, chronic exposure to high-level of lead have shown to reduce fertility in males.

  4. Thanks for this beautiful peace. I have always said this that in the field of environmental health, 20th century have registered an important milestone by banning the use of leaded fuels and lead in paints. Doc, well done!

  5. Thanks Doc for setting the ball rolling. I would like to add that lead has been shown many times to permanently reduce the cognitive capacity of children even at extremely low levels of exposure. I hope extra care would be taken in this regard.

    1. Nice piece. I’m currently making research on lead poisoning and that was how I stumbled on your blog and became interested in your contribution. Please supply me with some additional references tru my email address, if you can. Thank you.

      1. Thanks for your comment. My references are highlighted in the blog post as you read through; just click on each and you’ll reach the site accordingly:
        • UK International Development Department,
        • Blacksmith Institute,
        • Medecins Sans Frontires,
        • WHO and
        • Human Rights Watch.
        I hope am able to answer you accordingly. If you have any query, pls feel free to put it across. Cheers!

  6. Yes, though still present in harmful quantities in stone ware, vinyl (such as that used for tubing and the insulation of electrical cords), the International community have greatly helped in banning the use of lead in not only gasoline and paints but also solders. I hope developing countries like Nigeria would ensure same but attaching stringent measures and capital punishment to illegal miners.

  7. Dr Jalal, this is a well written post. I like the on going discussions which reminded me of 2006 and 2007 when many children’s toys made in China were recalled, primarily due to lead in paint used to color the product.

  8. I once read about the incidence of acute lead poisoning in Haina, the Dominican republic which was as a result of people inhaling lead particles in dust. There was at least 28% of children who required immediate treatment from the exposure with some additional 5% who were at risk of neurological damage because of extra-ordinarily high lead blood levels. I strongly believe in countries like Nigeria, lead poisoning has been happening in several parts of the country but remain unnoticed probably due to lack of due diligence on the part of government to ensure good environmental standards are maintained. Public health specialists and environmentalists should work extra hard to remind the government of its responsibilities. Well done Doc!

  9. I once mentioned that ‘environmental injustice’ is still in existence, with the rich living rich and the poor living poor in terms of environmental standards and exposure to hazards. Of the total volume of lead used across the globe annually, about 76% goes towards the production of lead-acid batteries. It is disheartening to note that it is only in the low income economies that you find recycled lead in use. This is now considered a valuable commodity and recovery of lead from used lead acid batteries (ULAB) is a significant source of income in the low income economies. In an attempt to make a profitable business from recovered lead, it has now become a good source of income for the low income economies buying these units in bulk and the batteries often shipped from high income countries, that produce, use, and collect the spent batteries for reprocessing. This recycling of ULAB further exposes us more to lead poisoning considering the increase in population density in urban centers of the low and mid income economies where informal recycling often takes place. I hope environmental justice would prevail eventually to make the world a better place for all.

  10. Well done with yet another powerful post. It is sad especially when you mentioned about ‘environmental injustice’. I hope ‘global health governance’ will bring a lasting change soon. Keep it up!

  11. Dear Dr Saleh,

    Please contact me on the provided email address regarding a conference on this topic… many thanks.

  12. Dear moderators, i just noticed some omissions and 1 little error. Before you approve/moderate/post my comments, could you kindly replace the above post with the corrected one below please?:

    Dear Dr Jalal, thanks a lot for your lovely piece and thanks to all your responders. I am from Zamfara and deeply involved in controlling LP, working with Government in partnership with other stakeholders; MSF, CDC, WHO, UNICEF, Terragraphics, Human Rights Watch, etc. Were you able to attend the MSF International Conference on Heavy Metal Poisoning – Focussing on Zamfara Lead Poisoning, in Abuja? I remember Dr Natalie did include your name among the invited participants. Could you please contact me through my email address (in this system) please? – Many thanks -Nasir Umar-Tsafe.

    1. Hi malam nasir, I am an Msc. student of chemistry depertment, B U K. Iam currently working on zamfara state lead poisining pandemic and i need of your assistance. How can i contact you please

      1. Thanks Mal Yahaya Z Yau. I have forwarded my email address (untsafe@yahoo.com) through the reply system. Have you seen it yet please?

  13. all is said, during the cause of my research i found out that there is no safe limit for lead in the body or the environment, and i think excavation of the top affected soil and replaced with a non affected is not the solution, i want to take our mind back to plant uptake of this heavy metals. when this plant are eaten or decomposed dont we think that we can have trace of this elements. fellow reseachers can’t we use plant and algae to treat the land and water?

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