Climate change and … lead poisoning?

Workers remove lead-contaminated soil from a similar incident in Nigeria in 2010.  Photo: AP.
Workers remove lead-contaminated soil from a similar Nigerian village in 2010.
Photo: Associated Press,

“The poisoning caused by artisanal mining from a gold rush killed at least 400 children, yet villagers still say they would rather die of lead poisoning than poverty…Villagers make 10 times as much money mining as they do from farming in an area suffering erratic rainfall because of climate change.”

–Simba Tirima, environmental scientist & field operations director in Nigeria for TerraGraphics International Foundation.

People taking risks to escape poverty is not a new story.  But people cornered into deadly occupations by climate change is a new force warranting global attention. As my title indicates, lead poisoning from climate change sounds illogical, but the indirect consequences of climate change are diverse and far-reaching both spatially and temporally. Mr. Timrima’s quote above sums up a ghastly incident in Bagega, Nigeria (see map below), but the decisions faced by the people behind the AP news story deserve further discussion. Some of the questions that come to mind include: Was the switch in occupation from farming to mining driven by the 10-fold increase in income from gold mining and processing or simply by erratic rainfall preventing a farmer from feeding their family?  Or both?  How rapidly did the decline in reliable rainfall and harvest occur?  Even if farmers had had access to alternative crop seeds, information for new farming techniques, or rain-fed water storage would any of these have allowed them to surmount the changing climate?  What other risky endeavors will become more common as the world’s poorest people can no longer support themselves through farming?  What can science contribute to this growing problem?  [I do not have the answers to these questions–but see this previous post.  Stay with AGua as we dig further into these issues in future posts! ]

Not only did the lead contamination (from makeshift, at-home gold ore processing) kill and permanently disable hundreds of children, it poisoned the soil and water–water used by nomads and their livestock, killing cows and goats.  The soil in Bagega, reaching up to 100,000 parts per million of lead, has 10 to 20 times the US’s maximum lead level in soils (400 ppm).  So even if the climate became amenable to reliable crop harvests in the future, much of the topsoil has been removed (see photo above) and what soil remains may still be toxic. Certainly, the mining is driven by desperation (and potentially greed); but once the soil and sky have prevented you from feeding your family, perhaps you lose respect for, or even develop animosity toward, nature.

With the recent conclusion of a five and a half month cleanup, Doctors Without Borders will now begin to treat affected children. This comes three years after Doctors Without Borders uncovered the illegal gold mining in this very remote village.  A lack of funds from the Nigerian government delayed the clean up.  To read the Associated Press article click here.

Screen shot from Google Maps.  Red pin indicates Bagega, Nigeria.
Screen shot from Google Maps. Red pin indicates Bagega, Nigeria.

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