Around the world children are dying from lead poisoning and many more suffering from the neurological and physical health problems associated with lead exposure. In one region of Nigeria, lead poisoning has caused an estimated 163 deaths, mostly among children.
CNN ran a lead story on the tragic developments this week, even though it seems that the problem was first recognized back in January. Lead is a toxin that can cause serious neurological problems and even death in young children, as well as adults. The most commonly cited consequences of lead poisoning in the US are learning disabilities and behavior problems.
I am mostly familiar with the problem of lead poisoning affecting children and families through inadequate housing that contains lead-based paint. However, in the Zamfara State of Nigeria, the region where these recent lead-related deaths are concentrated, the source of lead exposure appears to be the minerals brought home by workers from the mines.
Gold and other mined minerals can be laced with lead that easily seeps into the soil and other places where children play and families eat.
The problems in Nigeria reminded me of an April New York Times article that highlights a family's struggle to find adequate, healthy housing in New York City. What stands out is the extent to which policies and programs have been established in the United States to protect children against lead exposure and to educate the public about the serious and permanent consequences of lead poisoning.
Government intervention lead to the ban of lead-based paint for use in the US in 1978. Yet, many older homes and workplaces may still contain lead-based paint. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has a program designed to eliminate lead from low-income housing across the US - though there work is far from complete.
This tragedy in Nigeria - fueled by poverty and economic 'development' - reminds us that our health struggles in the US are not entirely like those of our global brothers and sisters. However, our resources and capacity to deal with the challenges are rarely matched.
How, if at all, will the mining company compensate families for these deaths and the ongoing illness that is likely to plague the region? How can we prevent this from happening again?