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A new pilot program with the aim of introducing safer practices to gold mines in Nigeria has been proven to be successful at reducing lead poisoning in the country’s artisanal mining communities, with blood levels of lead dropping by roughly 30%.
Pilot Study Minimizes Exposure to Workers
Lead poisoning has claimed the lives of many, mostly children, in the mining communities of Nigeria where people are being exposed to the high levels of lead that exist in gold ore. To tackle this, the Médecins Sans Frontières teamed up with Occupational Knowledge International to put together a pilot project, which saw the ore processing sites spraying water to limit the amount of airborne lead in the environment.
The pilot also added extra measures into the day to day lives of workers at the mines, having them change their clothes and wash themselves after work, and eat away from the mine in order to reduce their exposure to the toxic lead. The results of the study were positive, showing that these measures were successful in reducing the amount of lead present in the blood by about a third.
Lead Poisoning Blamed For Deaths of Village Children
An earlier 2010 study suggested that recent childhood deaths that had occurred in two Nigerian villages of interest were a result of exposure to lead, due to gold ore–processing, which led to fatal, acute lead poisoning. The results were shocking, of the 463 children in the two villages, 25% had died in the previous year, and of those tested, 100% were lead poisoned.
As well as being fatal at high levels, other studies have shown that lead exposure can also cause severe neurological deficits, and at low levels it can lead to death through causing cardiovascular disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) outlines that exposure to lead can induce a toxicant impact on numerous body systems, and that the element is particularly harmful to children. Once inside the body, lead accumulates in the brain, liver, kidney and bones, and human exposure can be measured by levels in the blood. The WHO also highlights that there is no accepted “safe” level of exposure to lead. Therefore prevention to exposure is crucial in keeping people safe.
Gold mining is a major source of human exposure to lead due to the high levels of the element in gold ore. Recent findings are encouraging the mining industry to take more measures to make the workplace and environment safe.
A Shift in Mining Protocol
The pilot study that took place in Nigeria was able to demonstrate that by just adding a few simple protocols people working in gold mines can be protected from the harmful effects of exposure to lead. The results showed that as a result of the basic measures taken, blood lead levels had reduced by 32%. These findings are significant because they represent the first data on a successful intervention in reducing lead exposure to miners and communities working with gold ore.
The preliminary findings encourage more widespread, scaled up versions of the intervention to take place. The study demonstrates the life saving potential of these kinds of projects that work alongside the communities involved in mining. It’s hoped that over the coming years, a shift in the protocols in mining operations will take place.
Adding the wet spray mist to the ore processing site alone had the impact of reducing airborne lead levels by 95%, demonstrating how effective simple and cheap measures can be at protecting the health of those working at and living around mining sites. With the addition of hand washing stations, change areas, and separate eating areas, these simple protocols could be easily added to further gold mining sites to prevent unnecessary death from lead poisoning.