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Across a swath of northern Nigeria, an environmental catastrophe is unfolding. Lead from illegal gold mines is sickening thousands of children. More than 400 kids have already died. Many have suffered seizures, some have been mentally stunted for life. Doctors Without Borders has set up clinics to treat the children and says it's the worst case of environmental lead poisoning in recent history.
NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story of from Nigeria.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The problem first came to light in 2010, when children all of a sudden started dropping dead. In some villages over the course of a few months, one-third of the kids under the age of five died. Ivan Gayton, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Nigeria, says the villagers and medical professionals couldn't explain what was happening.
IVAN GAYTON: Initially, they and we assumed that there was some kind of communicable disease. It felt like a hemorrhagic fever or something.
BEAUBIEN: Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were called in, and eventually declared the scale of the lead poisoning to be unprecedented.
In the tiny village of Dareta in northwestern Nigeria, Gado Labbo had no idea what was wrong with her three-year-old son, Yusuf. She says he was a healthy child and then suddenly he started violently convulsing.
GADO LABBO: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She says when Yusuf, he was small, he's very fine. But actually he become very sick.
BEAUBIEN: In 2010, when Yusef first entered a Doctors Without Borders clinic, he had a blood lead level of 150 micrograms per deciliter; this is 30 times higher than what the CDC says is cause for concern. Now, Yusuf is five years old. He's gone blind, weighs just 22 pounds, can't speak or walk, and spends most of his days clutched in his mother's arms.
Susan Lake, a nurse at the Doctors Without Borders clinic that's treating him, says they brought his blood level down to about 50 but he's already suffered significant neurological damage.
SUSAN LAKE: It's clearly linked to the lead. He's unable to walk and we see a lot of children have trouble with balance, ataxia, confusion, abdominal pain.
BEAUBIEN: And she says the long-term prospects for Yusuf are not good.
LAKE: Obviously with children, we just have to wait and see. But there is not much hope that he would gain enough capacity to be able to walk and talk again.
BEAUBIEN: The problem in this part of Nigeria is that the gold being extracted in artisanal mines is mingled with veins of lead. Compounding the problem, miners use primitive methods to process the raw ore.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
BEAUBIEN: Just outside the village of Bagega, men are smashing piles of rocks with salvaged auto parts. The smaller bits of rock are then crushed further in motorized flour mills. Dust flies up in the men's faces and coats their clothes. The sand that comes out of the flour mill is sifted and finally mixed, by hand, with shimmering globs of mercury in metal wash basins.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIFTING)
BEAUBIEN: The mercury binds to the gold. And if the miner is lucky, a grain bag full of rocks will yield a tiny aspirin-sized lump of the precious metal.
Nigeria may be Africa's largest oil producer but you see no sign of that wealth in these simple settlements. Local government health clinics are in shambles. There's no electricity or maintained roads. In the rainy season, some of the villages are only accessible by 4-by-4, motorcycle or camel.
At the gold processing site in Bagega, several of the miners say that aside from subsistence farming, mining is their only way to earn a living.
ADAMOU TSIKO: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Adamou Tsiko, one of the leaders of the miners, says it's very difficult to get money here. About six years ago, as the international price of gold started to rise, Tsiko says the men discovered that they could make money from the surrounding rocks.
At first, the miners were processing the gold ore inside their homes. Doctors Without Borders convinced most of them to move the processing to the outskirts of town. At seven contaminated villages, an Idaho company, Terra Graphics, came in and stripped away the lead-laden topsoil. This environmental remediation, plus treating the children who have the highest lead levels, has at least stemmed the deaths from the contamination.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING AND MACHINERY)
BEAUBIEN: A group of Chinese businessmen have also brought in a wet ore crushing machine to one of the villages. It looks a lot like the motorized flour mills but water runs over the ore as it's pummeled.
Abdullah Lokoja is a local businessman who helped the Chinese set up this new wet processing site.
ABDULLA LOKOJA: They are using water. You'll not see dust. Dust is not coming out.
BEAUBIEN: The site is just as chaotic as the old ore crushing operation. Most of the work is still done by hand but there is less dust in the air.
Lokoja says gold mining is the future of this part of Nigeria. And he says miners are earning hundreds, even thousands of dollars a day.
LOKOJA: If you are lucky enough, you can even get one million daily, yes, one million naira daily. If you are lucky, go and dig a good one, you'll get one million.
BEAUBIEN: Lokoja captures the dream of the gold prospects here but it appears to be only a dream. The miners, dressed in rags and living in mud huts, say they can earn 20 or $30 on a good day. Young kids working at the processing sites say they're paid the equivalent of just $2 a day.
Ivan Gayton, with Doctors Without Borders, however, says there have been improvements here recently.
GAYTON: Since we've arrived, most people have agreed to move their processing activities outside of their homes.
BEAUBIEN: But he remains, in his words, very concerned about the lead situation. Some contaminated villages are still waiting to be cleaned up. The miners have no legal title to their mines. Thus, they have little desire to invest in cleaner processing equipment. And they could move their toxic operations to another part of the bush at any moment.
Gayton says the scale of the lead contamination here is still unknown and the potential for more damage is huge.
GAYTON: It's turning into a long-term crisis. My nightmare, and I'll admit it, I'm terrified that because we're treating the children and we're averting the obvious short-term consequences of this mining, we might be encouraging this unsafe gold rush.
BEAUBIEN: Particularly if the price of gold remains high, people here are going to try to squeeze value out of the Earth anyway they can.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, northern Nigeria.