By Camillus Eboh
ABUJA (Reuters) - Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) decried on Friday a lack of action by Nigeria's government to tackle a lead poisoning epidemic that has killed 400 children and poisoned ten times as many near a gold mine.
The ministers of mines, environment and health were scheduled to attend a two-day conference on the lead poisoning in northern Nigeria's remote Zamfara state organized by MSF ending on Thursday. None of them showed up.
"This conference that we just spent a lot of money holding, they expressed their support for it, but none of the decision makers actually turned up," Ivan Gayton, the head of MSF Nigeria, told Reuters. "So the opportunity to announce concrete action was to some extent really missed."
The ministers were not immediately available for comment.
In 2010, a Nigerian health ministry official reported that lead poisoning caused by illegal gold mining had killed 163 Nigerians, most of them children, in remote villages, in the space of just a few months.
Since then, the mining has continued and some 4,000 children of the miners, often from desperately poor backgrounds where other sources of income are meager, have been contaminated.
Miners return from work dusted with lead, which then pollutes their homes. Because the body struggles to rid itself of metal, it accumulates in the blood over time. Children are particularly vulnerable because their growing nervous systems can be permanently damaged.
The villages affected, such as Dareta and Giadanbuzu, are in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers. No action has been taken to help them.
Africa's most populous country has a poor record on environmental protection, evidenced by the huge amounts of crude oil that it spills each year in the swamps of the Niger Delta.
"It does concern us that perhaps they (Nigeria's government) don't realize the scale of the problem and are not engaging at the level we think they should be," Gayton said.
An 800 million naira ($5.08 million) funding proposal from the environment ministry intended to finance safe mining programs had never materialized, he said.
"That money is desperately needed and if it were allocated, I wouldn't even be calling for anything more. It would really go a long way towards solving the problem."
Many victims died after coming into contact with tools, soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead.
Gayton said the levels of lead exposure in affected areas were 100 times above internationally accepted safe norms.
($1 = 157.6250 naira)
(Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mark Heinrich)