Zamfara And Niger States, Nigeria
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. In 2015, An estimated 30 children died during the initial lead poisoning outbreak in Niger State. 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 were modeled on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Superfund” protocols. Post-cleanup activities include 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 cleanup evolved from an emergency response initially directed largely by international personnel to a multi-disciplinary program carried out by Nigerian federal, state, and local governments employing village workers.
Source of Lead Poisoning
The source of the epidemic was artisanal gold mining that became prolific in 2009-10 in Zamfara State and in 2015 in Niger State. For several months preceding the outbreaks, ore processing was conducted at numerous sites within the villages. Ore crushing, washing, and gold recovery were undertaken within homes to utilize women’s labor. During the rapid increase in mining activities, a dangerous gold ore exceeding 10% lead was introduced. In Zamfara in 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 outside the villages. However, extremely hazardous waste and contaminated soils remained in the residences and communal areas.
In Zamfara, remediation continued over three and one-half years in three phases, encompassing 8 villages (Dareta, Yargalma, Abare, Tungar Guru, Sunke, Tungar Daji, Duza, and Bagega) and 17,000 residents. The work was conducted by ZMOE with TIFO providing technical guidance. More information on the Zamfara Response can be found in the journal articles and technical reports (below).
Overall, >27,000 cubic meters of contaminated soils and mining waste were removed, 820 residences and communal areas were remediated, soil lead exposures decreased by 97%, and average pre-treatment BLLs declined from 173 µg/dL to <20 µg/dL.
Niger State characterization occurred in 2015 and remediation was funded and implemented the following year. Two villages (Ungwar Kawo and Ungwar Magiro) with a combined population of 2500 were remediated. In total, 69 homes and 60 communal areas in the two villages were remediated, allowing children to receive life-saving chelation therapy.
The unprecedented outbreak and subsequent response demonstrate that, given sufficient political will and modest investment, the world’s most challenging environmental health crises can be addressed and resolved within the capabilities of host countries.
Read More: Journal Articles & Technical Reports
Tirima S, Bartrem C, von Lindern I, von Braun M, et al. 2018. Food contamination as a pathway for lead exposure in children during the 2010-2013 lead poisoning epidemic in Zamfara, Nigeria. Journal of Environmental Science 67:260-272.
Bartrem C. 2017. Environmental Health and Risk Assessment: Lead Poisoning, Remediation, and Project Sustainability in Zamfara, Nigeria and Lead-Arsenate Contamination in Washington, USA (PhD). University of Idaho.
Tirima S, Bartrem C, von Lindern I, von Braun M, Lind D, Anka SM, Abdullahi A. 2016. Environmental remediation to address childhood lead poisoning epidemic due to artisanal gold mining in Zamfara, Nigeria. Environmental Health Perspectives 124:1471–1478.
Tirima S. 2014. Unprecedented lead poisoning outbreak in Zamfara, Nigeria: A multidisciplinary humanitarian response to an environmental public health disaster in a resource scarce setting (PhD). University of Idaho,
Bartrem C, Tirima S, von Lindern I, von Braun M, Worrell MC, Mohammad Anka S, Abdullahi A, Moller G. 2014. Unknown risk: co-exposure to lead and other heavy metals among children living in small-scale mining communities in Zamfara State, Nigeria. International Journal of Environmental Health Research. 24(4), 304-319.
von Lindern I, von Braun M. 2011. Zamfara, Nigeria Lead Poisoning Epidemic Emergency Environmental Response May 2010 - March 2011: a report prepared for UNICEF Programme Cooperation Agreement (PCA Ref: YW-303(01)).