FG admits inadequate efforts to tackle lead poisoning in Nigeria, assures of new strategies


Vice President Yemi Osinbajo
  • Calls for National Strategy to prevent further outbreak
  • Vice President Osinbajo, Ministers commend MSF for restorative efforts

The Federal Government of Nigeria says it will ‘provide a platform for key national, regional and international stakeholders to come together to develop a multisector disciplinary and pragmatic national strategy for forestalling future outbreak of lead poison associated with artisanal gold mining in the country,’ stating that the strategy will prevent the recontamination of previously remediated sites.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who made the call in Abuja, on Tuesday, at the 2nd international conference on lead poisoning with special focus on prevention, admitted that ‘current efforts in tackling lead poising in artisanal gold mining have not been adequate,’ noting that ‘the fact that the Niger State outbreak happened five years after we though we have contained that problem’ shows that a lot more needs to be done.

He said ‘indications of recontamination in previously remediated sites in Zamfara compel government to rethink and refocus its commitment and strategy to protecting lives of vulnerable children and communities at large.’

Discussing the need for a carefully thought-out plan, he said: ‘As Nigeria traverses “the road to shared mining prosperity,” we must ensure that we do not do it in a way that harms our heath or environment adding that ‘those who say the option is death by poisoning, rather than poverty, offer a cynical choice.’

While lamenting that some 500 children lost their lives to lead poisoning as a result of mining activities, he expressed concern that ‘many of these children may never attain their full potentials as productive citizens.’

He therefore charged experts from various parts of the world who he said have come to assist Nigeria, to evolve solutions that will tackle what he described as ‘a serious public health problem especially in Zamfara and Niger States of Nigeria.’

While he recalled that the first international conference on lead poisoning was a joint effort of the Federal Ministry of Health and Medecins San Frontieres and that was held here in Abuja in May 2012, the vice president noted that the 2012 conference covered technical aspects, environmental management and the treatment of poisoned children.

‘While the Federal Government has pursued a National Gold Purchase Scheme as well as the development of a National Gold Policy, gold mining in Nigeria has been heard repeatedly is currently dominated by artisanal miners using rudimentary mining methods and crude processing techniques.’

‘The obvious consequence is the exposure of miners, environment and local communities to serious dangers in areas where gold ore contain high concentration of heavy metals like lead, exposure to the dust released by these methods lead to serious health consequences to the person directly involved in the mining, and also for all the neigbouring areas. Children, of course are the ones most at risk of death and disability.

‘Many will recall the outbreak of lead poisoning that occurred in Zamfara State and that has also been repeated many times today, in 2010 as a result of the processing of lead-rich gold ore by artisanal gold miners in residential compounds and village squares.

The Vice President said studies carried out in the affected village at that time showed that more than 17 thousand people were severely exposed and an estimated four hundred to five hundred children lost their lives due to acute lead poisoning.

He said the combined efforts from various international agencies including the Medecins San Frontieres, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organisation, the Telegraphics International Foundation, government of Zamfara State and the Federal Government helped to bring that tragic episode under control.

‘Regrettably, five years after the Zamfara outbreak, another outbreak of severe lead poisoning was recorded in April 2015 in two villages in Niger state.

‘As with the outbreaks in Zamfara State, this new outbreak was precipitated by environmental lead contamination from artisanal gold mining activities, nearly 30 children died from severe lead complications and many more were poisoned.

‘Again, the MSF with local authorities, commenced chelation treatment shortly after environmental remediation was completed by the Federal Government in September 2015. Till date, nearly seven thousand and two hundred children in Zamfara and Niger state respectively have received chelation treatment.

‘I am informed that this is the largest group of children under-5 years of age with severe intoxication anywhere. Unfortunately, treatment does not reverse the debilitating effects of lead poisoning it only accelerates the rates at which the body expels the lead in other to prevents further damage or death, so that the thousands of children who did not die of lead poisoning in Zamfara and Niger State, may therefore has to live with cognitive and other deformities.

He expressed confidence that the ‘conference will produce a federally coordinated preventions plans that leverages all the lessons learnt so far and bring local, state and federal authorities as well as civil society and the corporates into alignments,’ adding that stakeholders must avoid walking in sideways.

‘We must work together to solve these problems because the problems cut across all sectors and discipline,’ he said adding that a carefully thought-out National Plan that focuses on population and communities most vulnerable to lead poisoning being associated with artisanal gold mining, will yield the desired results.

‘Let me commend the efforts of the Minister of Mines and Steel Development and Medecins San Frontieres and other ministries and actors in convening this critical summit and this critical research for the optimal ways of preventing led poisoning, especially of children.

The Minister of State for Mine and Steel Development, Abubakar Bawa Bwari reiterated the commitment of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to the development of the mining sector via world class safe approaches adding that ‘the critical lesson Nigeria must learn is that no matter the scope of remediation and treatment, there will always be some recontamination, there will always be children who do not respond to treatment, and there will always be people willing to defy the dangers of mining gold using unsafe practices.

‘Clearly, the only effective long-term solution in ending further lead exposure is through behavioural change and the use of appropriate and economically feasible technologies.

‘As you are well aware, artisanal miners currently use rudimentary tools for excavating gold -bearing gravels and for dry crushing and grinding them.

‘The ground gold are thereafter washed in ponds shared by both humans and animals to recover the gold, resulting in the pollution of water with lead bearing waste material which animals and humans later used.

He said investigation on the Zamfara and Niger lead poisoning incidences showed they were caused by widespread lead contamination of residential areas, with the lead poisoning highest amongst children.

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