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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Nigeria Moves To Clean Up Lead Pollution From Gold Mines

Feb 6, 2013

Finally, the Nigerian government is fulfilling its promise to help thousands of kids, who have been exposed to toxic levels of lead.

After months of delay and red tape, the government has released $4 million to clean up lead in soil near illegal gold mines in northern Nigeria.

"We had a glass of champagne after the announcement," says Ivan Gayton, who directs Doctors Without Borders in Nigeria. "But it's not done yet. This is only the beginning of the work."

For nearly a year now, Gayton and his medical team have wanted to treat roughly 1,500 children in the town of Bagega for lead poisoning. But the doctors didn't have a safe place to set up clinics.

Gayton also says it would have been useless to try to clear lead out of kids' systems only to send them back to a contaminated village.

The release of the funds will allow soil remediation to begin around Bagega, and then kids will have a safe place to return to after treatment.

Gayton says the contamination levels at Bagega are particularly high. "It may be one of the worst lead contamination sites in the world," he tells Shots.

Lead poisoning in northern Nigeria has already killed more than 400 children and sickened thousands more.

About a decade ago, as the international price of gold rose toward record highs, villagers started mining gold from local rock formations.

Unfortunately, the gold deposits in this part of Nigeria run alongside veins of lead. As miners crush the ore to process it, they release toxic lead dust into the air.

Some children showed up at health clinics with blood lead levels above 400, or 40 times higher than what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is a cause for concern.

The lead poisoning has caused cognitive and developmental delays in children. In severe cases, kids were going into convulsions and even dying.

An Idaho-based company remediated the soil in several villages in the state of Zamfara, but the money to clean up Bagega had been tied up in the Nigerian bureaucracy for more than a year.

Doctors Without Borders physicians have been treating only the most severe cases of lead poisoning from Bagega, saying that more widespread treatment would be futile if the patients immediately return to a contaminated environment.

Gayton says the release of the remediation money is a major step forward for helping these kids.

But the long delay has exacted a heavy toll. "By now the most vulnerable children are already dead," he says.

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