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“Wet mining” reduces exposure to lead poisoning among Niger gold miners

A pilot programme to introduce safer mining practices in gold-mining communities of Nigeria shows levels of lead in the blood reduced by 32%, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

It is the first study to report successful intervention to reduce exposure to lead among artisanal miners in communities where hundreds of children have died from lead poisoning from the high level of lead present in gold ore.

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The interventions, known as “wet mining”, included providing education to train thousands of miners in Shikira community in Niger State, and putting in place hand washing stations, change areas, and separate eating areas to reduce exposures.

Occupation Knowledge International partnered with Doctors Without Borders in the study.

“This is an extraordinary achievement demonstrating that it is possible to significantly reduce lead exposures among highly exposed informal miners with simple safer mining practices,” said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International (OK International)’

“These results exceeded expectations and are comparable to what large scale lead industries strive to achieve with millions of dollars in investment over multiple years,” Gottesfeld added.

For the intervention, a bore well was installed to provide wet spray misting to lower airborne lead levels at the ore processing site serving Shikira.

These measures reduced airborne lead exposures by 95%.

Blood lead levels are considered the best measure of exposure. The organization tracked quarterly blood lead levels of a representative group of 58 miners over 19 months.

The study also found that women miners had higher lead levels and experienced lower reductions than men (23% vs. 36%).

Philip Aruna, Head of Mission in Nigeria for Doctors Without Borders said, “We showed that by working cooperatively with the entire community we can bring significant reductions in lead exposures.”

The miners were later on encouraged to take measures to reduce hazardous lead exposures and invested their own time and money to implement the protective measures.

The measures include handwashing, showering, setting up separate eating areas, and changing out of work clothing before going home at the end of the day.

Lead causes severe neurological deficits and death among children in these communities, but even at low exposure levels is responsible for 674,000 deaths each year primarily due to cardiovascular disease.

Investments in safer mining to reduce lead exposures would have a significant return on investment compared to the costs of treating severe lead poisoning in these communities.

There are an estimated 40 million informal small-scale miners working in at least 70 countries around the world. In addition to artisanal gold mining, informal lead mining accounts for an increasing share of the global lead supply.

Karla Bil, with Doctors Without Borders and an author of the study said that “Our pilot project demonstrated that safer mining practices are feasible, cost effective and can greatly improve health outcomes in mining communities impacted by severe lead poisoning.”

She added, “There is an immediate need for the Nigerian government to invest in safer mining practices throughout impacted communities in Northern Nigeria to apply these measures to improve health and reduce childhood lead poisoning.”

The overall cost for capital improvements for Shikira was approximately $5,000.

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