Gold in general has great PR. It's slick, it's hip, it's bling. But in a remote corner of West Africa, it's killing children.
Lead from illegal gold mines in northwestern Nigeria has sparked what Doctors Without Borders has called the worst case of environmental lead poisoning in years.
The catastrophe is part of the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. housing market.
OK, maybe this seems like a stretch — African kids dying because of bad loans — but here's how it happened.
Gold has long been viewed as a financial safe haven. For years, it traded for a few hundred dollars an ounce and produced modest gains for investors. Then the U.S. housing bubble began to deflate in late 2006 and early 2007, sending Wall Street into a tailspin and setting off a global economic crisis that sent investors rushing to buy precious metals.
Gold prices shot up from $600 an ounce in 2006 to a record of nearly $1,900 an ounce in 2011. This prompted farmers in Nigeria's Zamfara state to revisit some local rock outcroppings that supposedly held flecks of gold.
Unfortunately, that ground also held lethal amounts of lead. Miners hack tunnels into veins of quartz by hand. They smash the rocks with salvaged auto parts (axels are popular for bludgeoning) and then grind the ore into a powder in flour mills. It's at this grinding stage that lead dust flies through the air and, eventually, makes its way into the blood streams of local children.
A Nigerian miner can work all day to extract a BB-sized lump of gold that will fetch $20 or $30. This is good money in a place where most people earn less than $2 a day.
Ten years ago, when gold prices were lower, this mining wasn't so tempting. The work was just as hard, but the men would only earn half or a third of what they do now. And most of them chose not to.
NPR photographer David Gilkey and I traveled to some of these artisanal gold mines. Be sure to check out the video above from our reporting trip.
We also visited the local clinics being run by Doctors Without Borders, where kids with astronomical blood lead levels were being treated. I spoke with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about the story; Saturday's audio will be available at the top of this post. We also filed a report for All Things Considered earlier this week.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In northern Nigeria, the rising price of gold, extreme poverty and a bit of bad luck are all coming together to kill children. Many youngsters living near gold mines in Nigeria are being poisoned in what's been called the worst case of environmental lead contamination in recent history. Some children in the area have lead levels in their blood that are a hundred times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as cause for concern. NPR's Jason Beaubien has just returned from visiting some of these mines, and joins us in our studios. Jason, thanks so much for being with us.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Oh, it's great to be here.
SIMON: Now, lead poisoning is not usually associated with gold mining. So, what's happening?
BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Usually, there's often problems with mining. And particularly gold mining; it's cyanide, it's mercury. But here, the problem is that these little deposits of gold that they have are actually in deposits of lead. And so as they dig out this gold, this ore, and then they crush it down to get these little bits of gold that are in there, they're releasing lead into the entire atmosphere, and it's going throughout these towns. And kids have been not just getting really sick but hundreds of them have actually been dying from lead poisoning there.
SIMON: Do these children get sick from inhaling it, from drinking it in the water? What happens?
BEAUBIEN: The lead that's there, it's particular oxides and carbonates, which have to be taken into the body through the stomach, it's only when the stomach acid actually reacts with them that they're absorbed into the body. So, it's affecting kids more because kids tend to play in the dirt and then they get their hands in their mouth and they actually have to ingest this lead for it to get into their bodies.
SIMON: How does the international price of gold play into this?
BEAUBIEN: It's really interesting. About a decade ago, there really wasn't much gold mining there. They knew that there was gold but it was only a little bit that we're really talking about very marginal amounts of gold. They take these entire big bags of ore and they crush them down and they process them and they get these little tiny specks of gold. And in the past, it just wasn't worth it to do that. But recently, with the price of gold having gone up to record levels, it really is worth their time. So, it's interesting that this is a place that's very remote, very removed from the outside world and the international markets. But when the international price of gold goes up, they hear about it and they've started trying to extract this gold from these lead deposits.
SIMON: Jason, what are the medical effects on children?
BEAUBIEN: It's interesting because at first you don't really see an effect on the child then their lead levels starts going up. And it's happening so quickly there that kids just started convulsing and then just dying from it when their lead level got to an extreme level. At the lower levels, kids are stunted, they have neurological problems, learning disabilities. Parents were telling us that my child was completely normal, then he got this terrible fever, started convulsing and has basically regressed back to a very sort of primitive state - unable to see, unable to walk, unable to care for themselves. And you've got hundreds of kids like this in this very rural, very undeveloped part of northern Nigeria.
SIMON: What's being done to try and deal with it?
BEAUBIEN: At the moment, Doctors without Borders has gone in - probably the most important thing that they did was alert people that this is what's going on. People didn't know why these kids were dying. So, they've gone in, they've gotten people to move the processing out of the villages themselves, so you don't get the lead dust going throughout these entire villages. And that has done a lot. They also are giving treatment to the kids that have really high levels of lead. But even that, it takes months, it takes years to extract this lead back out of the kids' bodies. And the fear is that they're going to have developmental delays that is severely going to stunt this entire generation of kids who've been affected by it.
SIMON: But still, the financial incentive remains. There's no chance they'll just shut this down.
BEAUBIEN: They probably won't shut this down so long as people there can continue to make some money off of this. And so with the price of gold so high, people are going to do this. They don't have really any other way to make money. Mainly these people are subsistence farmers, there's no industry, there's no jobs in this area. And being able to earn $20 or 30 a day for them is just, you know, a windfall. This is like winning the lottery.
SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien who's been in Nigeria reporting this story. Thanks so much.
BEAUBIEN: It's great to be here.
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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.