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A Tarnished Gold Rush

It’s hard for us here in North America to believe that gold is killing hundreds of children in Nigeria. Well, it isn’t exactly the gold that is killing them, it is the lead oxide and lead carbonate in the dust that is stirred up in the search for tiny gold nuggets.

It’s hard for us here in North America to believe that gold is killing hundreds of children in Nigeria. Well, it isn’t exactly the gold that is killing them, it is the lead oxide and lead carbonate in the dust that is stirred up in the search for tiny gold nuggets. There is no modern machinery here, the miners work with shovels and hammers. They bring rocks home and pound them into dust in the quest for bits of gold that may allow for an improved life. The lead-laden dust settles on everything, including clothing and food. Water becomes contaminated as it is used to rinse away the dust. Not only has the Gold Rush increased the mortality rate in Nigeria dramatically, killing more than 400 children, it is also responsible for the rising incidence of mental deficiency, developmental difficulties and damaged organs.

Blood samples from children reveal levels of lead dozens of times higher than the international accepted threshold. Even if there were to be a drastic reduction in household lead dust, contamination of the water supply remains. Doctors working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have treated some 2,000 of the estimated 4,000 contaminated children with drugs that bind lead (chelation therapy) but this is futile if there is no effort to clean up of the contaminated villages. The Nigerian government is under immense pressure to fund and participate in a “cleanup” of one of the worst cases of lead poisoning in history. Modern equipment that doesn’t release dust would go a long way to solving the problem, but it’s expensive. The crisis may yet worsen if the price of gold goes up. The only hope is for the government to put forth safe mining practices and provide miners with safety equipment. And we worry about whether there are traces of genetically modified components in our ample food supply.