African Gold Rush Kills Children as Miners Discover Lead Dust – BusinessWeek

via African Gold Rush Kills Children as Miners Discover Lead Dust – BusinessWeek.

Gold fever brought death to Umoru Musa’s nine-family compound in Sunke, a mud-brick village in northern Nigeria.

Five of the 25 children, including Musa’s 1-year-old daughter Nafisa, lost their lives in May after villagers ground ore from nearby hills they didn’t know were also loaded with lead. Rising prices for gold promised a windfall. Instead, they helped unleash the deadliest lead-poisoning crisis in modern medical history.

As the adults pulverized rocks with their grain grinder, they spewed lead dust across the ground where their children played and poultry grazed. They spread more of the material, lethal to children in high doses, around the communal well where they washed the ore to sift out the gold.

Because the area is so poor, with most people living on less than $1 per day, families have turned to processing ore to make money.  Many communities have been able to put tin roofs on housing, buy motorbikes, and increase the size of the cattle herds.  But it has come with a high price tag – the lives of their children.

At least 284 children under the age of five have died from lead poisoning in eight villages in Nigeria’s Zamfara state as a result of small-scale gold mining, according to government officials. An additional 742 are being treated for high levels of lead in their blood, a number which may rise to 3,000 by the end of next year, according to Médecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders.

The deaths are an unintended consequence of a 21st century gold rush. Villagers turned en masse to mining over the past two years, spurred on by more frequent visits from gold-buying middlemen. During that time, investors drove bullion prices up 58 percent in London as they sought a haven from the aftermath of the financial crisis. Gold reached a record $1,431.25 an ounce in London on Dec. 7.

Nigeria has banned mining in the region, but it is unlikely that families will stop processing the ore.  Clean-up efforts at several villages include removing topsoil and bringing in new dirt.  But it won’t help those who have already been damaged by the poison.  Long-term consequences of exposure to lead include permanent brain damage, nervous system damage, and birth defects.

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