Illegal mining is an enduring burden. It should be lightened

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) has resolved the mystery surrounding recent deaths in Sokoto State. On 9 April, the NCDC announced that it had instituted an investigation to unravel an unidentified disease which had killed 164 children of between four and 13 years in the state. “We can say that luckily it is not a disease of infectious origin. We sent the blood samples to different laboratories and what we discovered so far is evidence of heavy metal poisoning in those two states,” said the NCDC Director General, Jide Idris. Since heavy metals that are associated with poisoning of humans include lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium, there is nothing to rejoice about in the findings because these deaths would most probably be associated with illegal mining activities. In the case of the affected communities, it is likely lead, based on previous fatalities, especially in neighbouring Zamfara State.

Indeed, the menace of lead poisoning due principally to the activities of illegal miners had been headlined many times over. Now that the NCDC has the facilities to test, they need to probe further to find out the extent of the damage illegal mining activities have done to rural communities across Nigeria. In 2010, no fewer than 400 children under five died from lead poisoning in Zamfara State alone. An American assessment team from the Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, said lead poisoning was closer to every home in Nigeria than realised. They said there was so much lead in the air, on water and at homes. More troubling was the disclosure that most of the miners were themselves carriers of death. Some of the miners took home their dusty clothes and shoes contaminated with lead, which their innocent children inhaled to their peril.

Lead is colourless, odourless and tasteless, making it an insidious killer. Besides death, 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 often the main victims. Many of them are left with severe handicaps like some form of paralysis while others are afflicted with severe mental retardation and other health disorders. Evidently, repeated scenes of funerals and the vulnerability of the living in many communities due to illegal mining activities have not acted as deterrence. Perhaps because of familiarity, the people are either impervious to the growing tragedy or simply living in denial.

In 2011, the ministry of mines and steel development set up a panel to investigate the accident and recommend measures to prevent future occurrence. Remediation work started by TerraGraphics, a US-based engineering firm, was halted when it ran out of funds, which was in the first place donated by some foreign agencies. The company targeted 15 contaminated villages for remediation and had cleaned up seven. The money promised by our government never came. Meanwhile, more communities are getting infected as more people are digging their own graves.

Yet, even more worrisome is the growing feeling that there is no solution in sight. Many Nigerians engaged in these activities because it is their only source of livelihood.  Zamfara State is a haven for illegal mining. The state is rich in iron, gold and copper, minerals which a former Governor, Abdulaziz Yari, once said are of high quality and could even sustain the state if put to effective use. Ironically, these valuable minerals have become agents of death. In the absence of any other rewarding vocation, many of the inhabitants often pour into mining sites to help themselves and in so doing, endanger their lives and those of others, particularly children.

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