Lead Kills Again: Blacksmith Experts Rush to Respond to Unprecedented Toll in Nigeria
Blacksmith experts are currently racing against the clock to do urgent cleanup in Nigeria, where over 150 children, most under five, have been killed in an unprecedented outbreak of lead poisoning (see update below).
News of this emergency broke a few weeks ago, just as Blacksmith was finishing up remediation work on an earlier lead tragedy in Senegal, where 18 children died suddenly in 2008.
These two incidents are not isolated -- the sad truth is that lead pollution and poisoning occurs in almost every city in the developing world... but we do not hear about it until it begins killing in startling numbers, as in Nigeria and Senegal.
In Senegal, lead pollution was caused by the improper recycling of used car batteries. In Nigeria, it was the result of small-scale gold processing.
In these instances, there seems to be no permanent solution unless the affected community is shown alternative ways of earning a living, or they are educated about the dangers of lead and learn how to work safely with the toxin.
Unfortunately, this information will not reach many poor, remote parts of the world until it is too late. So Blacksmith will have to continue to remediate crisis hotspots because cleanup seems to be the only solution available now to prevent more deaths.
-- Richard Fuller, President, Blacksmith Institute
In This Issue:
Blacksmith experts have been on the ground in Nigeria leading emergency cleanup operations since news broke of the massive lead poisoning outbreak last month.
Cleanup crews have completed emergency remediation in two of the worst contaminated villages - Dareta and Yargalma in Zamfara state. Seasonal rains have already flooded some roads to the rural, remote villages, located about two hours away from the state capital Gusau, slowing down cleanup work.
Dan McCraken, a project manager for TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering, part of the Blacksmith emergency response team, says the work is labor intensive.
"The local crews work in six-person teams. Half the group is armed with hoes to break up the one-to-two inches of hard crust on the ground, where most of the contamination is concentrated. The other half shovel the contaminated soil into sacks and pile them outside the living compounds, where they wait to be taken to a landfill being constructed a safe distance from the village," says Dan. "The work is hard but the first thing they ask me every day is "How's work?" By that they mean "How are we doing?" They really want to make sure the job is done correctly."
Dan, who has also worked on the Bunker Hill Superfund site in the U.S., was shocked at the high levels of lead in the two villages.
"I have never worked on a project where the contamination is so high, yet contained in such a small area. You can take an XRF reading on the surface and get concentrations in the 40,000 to over 100,000 ppm (parts per million) range, and two inches below the surface the reading is below 400 ppm. At the Bunker Hill site, where the contamination has been around for decades, concentrations between 1,000 and 10,000 ppm are common but nothing like what is on the surface in these villages," says Dan. (The limit for residential areas in USA and France is 400 ppm)
"This contamination is recent so it has not spread yet. This will soon change when it starts to rain hard."
Blacksmith currently has about nine experts in Nigeria and a crew of several hundred. The cleanup process also includes digging landfills and interviewing residents about their gold processing activities to pin point the most contaminated areas for remediation. Sample maps are then produced to guide cleanup crews.
"Outside the affected areas, you see children everywhere, but not in Dareta and Yargalma, " recalls Dan. "You ask yourself where are all the children? That is the impact of this tragedy."
Remediation work has not begun in at least five other known contaminated villages because of a lack of funds. Emergency funds are being sought. (Learn more about the Nigerian lead outbreak.)
Read the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Alert and Response on the emergency.
Read the June Blacksmith Alert
TOOLS OF THE TRADE: THE XRF
In the photo above, Blacksmith expert Casey Bartrem of TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering uses an XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) to take samples of the contaminated soil in the villages. The XRF can identify metallic particles in the soil in about 30 seconds, allowing remediation crews to quickly determine the extent of any contamination. Before the XRF, samples had to be collected and sent to a lab.
Blacksmith is about to complete the final phase of emergency cleanup in Thiaroye Sur Mer, a town near Dakar, closing a painful chapter that began in 2008 when 18 children died suddenly of lead poisoning. It was a tragedy that shook the community, bringing renewed focus to one of the world's worst pollution problems--the improper recycling of used car batteries.
[Car batteries are the most recycled product in the U.S., where it is handled properly and governed by rules and regulations. But in almost every city in the developing world, car batteries are broken by hand and smelted in kitchens and backyards.]
In Thiaroye Sur Mer, a fishing community, people were recycling lead from the car batteries to use as weights for their nets.
"They probably scooped the toxic lead out with their bare hands, which is bad enough, but the real problem was the lead they left behind in contaminated piles of sludge," says Donald Jones, a member of Blacksmith's Technical Advisory Board, who is working on the cleanup. "When people realized that they could collect more lead to sell by sifting this contaminated sludge, they began to bring bags of the toxic stuff back to their homes."
As with most cases of lead poisoning, most of the victims were children under five.
Chronology of a cleanup
Following the initial government response to the tragedy, Blacksmith teams completed comprehensive assessments of the extent of lead-contaminated soil and levels of lead inside homes.
In June 2009, Blacksmith worked with authorities to remove the worst contaminated soil from the town -- soil that contained as much as 40% to 50% lead. Over the past year, cleaning crews have also been going from house to house to remove toxic lead dust (see photographs). Blacksmith has also worked with Basel Convention representatives to establish a regional battery collection and recycling center in western Senegal.
"It is a challenge. Almost every day additional areas with buried lead oxide residue are identified by residents in the community. And people are still bringing us bags that they have been storing in their homes," notes Donald.
Currently, shallow layers of lead, six to eight inches deep, still remain.
"There are no paved areas so although much of the ground has been covered by clean fill, some of these areas have become re-contaminated by annual rains and floods, which has spread residual lead," says Donald. "What's left to do is to get rid of lead in these common areas to stop the spread of contamination, so that kids don't get it on their feet when they are playing outside, and people don't track it back into their houses."
The Blacksmith team in Senegal is rushing to finish the soil removal before the rains start in this month. A detailed assessment by the Blacksmith team and TerraGraphics has determined that approximately 150 truckloads of soil will need to be excavated and replaced with clean fill. Blacksmith is working directly with the Senegal Ministry of Environment to help them understand the process and challenges associated with this complicated remediation to help them deal with the many other contaminated sites throughout the country.
Donald notes that success of the project depends on the continued decline in the blood lead levels of children and adults. Blacksmith has provided portable blood analyzers and kits so that the Senegal Ministry of Heath can conduct regular testing.
[Photo: Donald Jones with a father who lost four children in the lead poisoning outbreak.]
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