In March 2010, the international humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) discovered an outbreak of lead poisoning in remote villages in Zamfara State, Nigeria. More than 17,000 people were severely poisoned and 400-500 children died as a result of soil lead contamination associated with artisanal gold mining/processing in residential compounds. International organizations collaborated with Nigerian health authorities and local civil and traditional governments to provide emergency medical, environmental, technical, and public health response.
Remediation activities, conducted in three phases from May 2010 to July 2013, were modeled on Idaho/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Superfund” protocols. Post-cleanup activities included medical treatment in MSF-run clinics, monitoring the sustainability of the remediation, and implementation of safer mining practices. The epidemic has been characterized as unprecedented, and the ensuing cleanup one of the largest and most comprehensive ever undertaken by an African government.
Remediating the villages presented numerous resource, logistic, cultural, institutional, and technical challenges. The remote area is difficult to access and has little infrastructure. Village life is ruled by overlapping civil, tribal, and Sharia governments, exhibits gender-segregated social structure, suffers numerous endemic diseases with limited healthcare, and a workforce dependent on primitive tools and labor practices. The cleanup evolved from an emergency response initially developed and directed largely by international personnel from TerraGraphics (TG) to a multi-disciplinary program carried out by Nigerian federal, state, and local governments employing village workers.
The Source of Lead Poisoning
The source of the epidemic was artisanal gold mining that became prolific in 2009-10. For several months, ore processing was conducted at numerous sites within the villages. Because local religious and cultural practices include the sequestration of married women, ore crushing, washing, and gold recovery were undertaken within homes to utilize the women’s labor. During the rapid increase in mining activities, a dangerous gold ore exceeding 10% lead was introduced. By April 2010, with death and illness prevalent, the local Emirates ordered a temporary suspension of artisanal ore processing and later required that all operations be moved approximately outside the villages. However, extremely hazardous waste and contaminated soils remained in the residences and communal areas.
MSF/TG focused on emergency medical treatment and environmental response. MSF, ZMOH, and FMOH developed village chelation therapy clinics. All entities agreed that children could not live in contaminated homes as it would compromise the treatment. Coupled with local resistance to relocation, this required the villages to be remediated prior to commencing chelation.