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Amina Murtala is only 20, but she has already lost three children to lead poisoning – a deadly consequence of small-scale gold mining in her home state of Zamfara in Nigeria.

Human Rights Watch researched the impact of lead poisoning on communities near Zamfara’s mines, shooting video of the families, teachers, and healthcare workers we interviewed. We created a multimedia report exposing the devastation – the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.

Our objective was to persuade Nigeria’s federal government, which controls funding for lead clean-up, of the situation’s urgency. Together with our partner organizations, we urged the Nigerian government to protect families at risk of lead poisoning. Last week President Goodluck Jonathan agreed to release 650 million Naira (roughly US$4 million) for environmental remediation and to put in place safer mining practices in Zamfara state. This clean-up could give Amina’s newest baby a better chance at a healthy life. 

With the dramatic rise in international gold prices in recent years, small-scale gold mining has been on the rise. But this small-scale mining, often done in an unsafe way, exposes Zamfara’s miners and the people around them to dangerous lead. Children’s developing bodies are extremely vulnerable to the toxic effects.

The discovery of gold in Zamfara brought hope to the state’s residents, but the consequences have been deadly. We spent several weeks in the village of Bagega, four hours from the state capital and only accessible by a bush road. It is also the most contaminated village in the state. At least 400 children have died from lead poisoning in Zamfara since 2010, and at least another 2,000 children need urgent treatment for lead poisoning.

The lead is released when adults and children crush and grind rock ore. We spoke with children in Bagega who are exposed to lead dust when they work in the mining site and when their miner relatives return home covered with lead dust. Sometimes, miners crush the lead-filled ore at home, contaminating their houses. Many children live in homes made of mud bricks, some of which have lead levels several times higher than is safe.

Human Rights Watch, along with international partners, brought our findings from visits to Bagega and nearby villages to the attention of high-level officials in Zamfara state, as well as in the federal government.

We asked for three essential changes: First, to put safer mining practices in place.  Second, to clean up contaminated areas. And third, to test and treat at-risk children for lead poisoning.  If children with acute lead poisoning aren’t given chelation therapy, used to treat heavy-metal poisoning, the result can be permanent mental and physical disabilities or even death. However, it is essential to clean up the children’s environment first, to avoid re-exposure.

After we began our advocacy, Zamfara’s state government put together a team and began environmental clean-up in Bagega. We will monitor how the federal government’s money is spent. Ultimately, we hope to see a full-scale clean-up operation in all the contaminated villages. This money should also facilitate safer mining practices for people in Zamfara state, so they benefit from their land without risking the health of their families.  

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