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The menace of lead poisoning – Thisday

By The Citizen

Activities of illegal miners are endangering many Nigerians, particularly children. It is benumbing that the relevant authorities seem oblivious to a certain mass killer that has already claimed the lives of thousands of Nigerians, due principally to the activities of illegal miners in Zamfara State. Last year, no fewer than 400 children under five died from lead poisoning and this year, more than 2,000 have been afflicted.

This phenomenon indeed poses a clear and present danger to Nigerians not only because of the unregulated activities of illegal miners and the inability of the relevant authorities to rein them in but also because the danger indeed is everywhere. While it is widely assumed that lead poisoning is a sequestered occurrence in some remote villages in north-central Nigeria, or at worst in illegal gold-mining communities, it could indeed take place in virtually every home and, more frighteningly, even in schools.

This point was driven home recently by Mary Jean Brown, the Chief, Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, USA, when she made it clear that lead poisoning was closer to every home in Nigeria than realised. She disclosed this in the course of her recent visit to assess the extent of lead contamination in the country. As a measure of how dangerous the situation is, she disclosed that some types of emulsion paint, whose toxic effect took America 100 years to clean up, were now commonly used in homes across the country.

But even more troubling is that the air and water around us can be toxic from lead-contaminated paint and dust in older buildings, furniture, toys and crafts, which are the most common sources of lead poisoning in children. The short-term effects of lead poisoning include acute fever, convulsion, loss of consciousness and blindness, while the long-term effects include anaemia, renal failure and brain damage in children who are the main victims. Many of them are left with very severe handicaps like some form of paralysis while some have severe mental retardation and other disorders.

But of far more significance is that most of the illegal miners are not only walking corpses, according to experts, they are also silent killers as a result of their ignorance. Most of these miners take contaminated lead dust or clothes to their houses whereas babies are said to be easily poisoned by inhaling the dust of the lead. Unfortunately, lead in water is colourless, odourless and tasteless, making it even more precarious as there is no way of detecting it with physical senses. This makes it quite insidious as heavy concentrations could be in the water we drink without any ready means of knowing it.

This is therefore the time for the government, at all levels, to rise up to the occasion to mitigate the effect of lead poisoning. For instance, remediation work is said to have been stalled in Zamfara because of inadequate financing, which forced TerraGraphics, a US-based engineering firm that has been carrying out the cleanup, to move out. The company targeted 15 badly contaminated villages for remediation and had cleaned up seven with $2.3 million (1.6 million euros) in donations before it ran out of cash, according to a report. This means that the Federal Government and the Zamfara State government must collaborate to fill the gap immediately to have the remediation done.

Much more importantly, however, the best bet is creating awareness in the various publics: manufacturers of affected products, consumers of the products, parents and guardians as well as miners. There is need, finally, for the government to commit more resources to research into this problem. Since the potential of lead poisoning is so strong and all of its effects are not yet established, Nigerian researchers should strive to establish if there is any link between it and the rising incidence of cancer about which there has been growing concern lately.