Fallout From Financial Crisis: Thousands Of Nigerian Kids Poisoned By Lead | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Fallout From Financial Crisis: Thousands Of Nigerian Kids Poisoned By Lead

Play associated audio

Gold in general has great PR. It's slick, it's hip, it's bling. But in a remote corner of West Africa, it's killing children.

Lead from illegal gold mines in northwestern Nigeria has sparked what Doctors Without Borders has called the worst case of environmental lead poisoning in years.

The catastrophe is part of the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. housing market.

OK, maybe this seems like a stretch — African kids dying because of bad loans — but here's how it happened.

Gold has long been viewed as a financial safe haven. For years, it traded for a few hundred dollars an ounce and produced modest gains for investors. Then the U.S. housing bubble began to deflate in late 2006 and early 2007, sending Wall Street into a tailspin and setting off a global economic crisis that sent investors rushing to buy precious metals.

Gold prices shot up from $600 an ounce in 2006 to a record of nearly $1,900 an ounce in 2011. This prompted farmers in Nigeria's Zamfara state to revisit some local rock outcroppings that supposedly held flecks of gold.

Unfortunately, that ground also held lethal amounts of lead. Miners hack tunnels into veins of quartz by hand. They smash the rocks with salvaged auto parts (axels are popular for bludgeoning) and then grind the ore into a powder in flour mills. It's at this grinding stage that lead dust flies through the air and, eventually, makes its way into the blood streams of local children.

A Nigerian miner can work all day to extract a BB-sized lump of gold that will fetch $20 or $30. This is good money in a place where most people earn less than $2 a day.

Ten years ago, when gold prices were lower, this mining wasn't so tempting. The work was just as hard, but the men would only earn half or a third of what they do now. And most of them chose not to.

NPR photographer David Gilkey and I traveled to some of these artisanal gold mines. Be sure to check out the video above from our reporting trip.

We also visited the local clinics being run by Doctors Without Borders, where kids with astronomical blood lead levels were being treated. I spoke with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about the story; Saturday's audio will be available at the top of this post. We also filed a report for All Things Considered earlier this week.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

After Father's Death, A Writer Learns How 'The Japanese Say Goodbye'

Lost in a deep depression, Marie Mutsuki Mockett visited a temple owned by her mother's family near Fukushima. There, she found traditions and ways of thought that helped her work through her grief.
NPR

Watch 'Bob's Burgers'? Now You Can Eat Them, Too

What happens when you try to make a burger out of a pun? One blog, two years, and dozens of recipes later, millions of fans can now cook up their very own Bob's burgers.
NPR

Obama Makes Guest Appearance On Modi's Radio Show

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosts a radio show and this week his guest was President Barack Obama. They answered questions from a curious Indian public.
NPR

Facebook Suffers Self-Inflicted Outage

A Facebook statement said the disruption was caused by a technical change it made to the site and wasn't a cyberattack. The outage lasted an hour.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.