In the Dakar suburb of Thiaroye/Mer earlier this year 22 children died from lead poisoning over a three month period and in June a further 31 children were found to have potentially lethal levels of lead in their blood. While these children undergo emergency medical treatment, the government now faces the daunting task of identifying and treating further victims and decontaminating the neighbourhood once and for all.
A June mission to the affected area by the Minister of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed 71 people were suffering from poisoning, according to Dr. Coly, head of the fight against diseases at the WHO. But he says many more could be in danger.
“We did not examine everyone in the area – it was a limited study. We know the environment is contaminated and we imagine there are people among them who may be sick. The ministry of health needs to do more assessments of the area,” Dr. Coly said.
Demba Diaw one of the 1,000 residents of Ngagne Diaw, the most-affected neighbourhood in Thiaroye/Mer, said, “Here no one is safe from ingesting lead – it is in the dust that covers are houses and in the liquid that we drink.”
Dr. Hassane Yaradou, adviser to the health minister confirmed “Levels of lead remain high in homes and in the surrounding area.”
How the lead got there
The practice of lead recycling started in 1995 when residents started collecting car batteries from mechanics nearby, extracted lead plates from them to sell on to blacksmiths, and emptied their contents in the sand. According to Diaw the activity intensified in 2006 when a foreign buyer bought a container-full of lead-filled sand for US$121. “Soon everyone was cashing in, even the vegetable-sellers from the market nearby.”
As the practice escalated in late 2007 residents started extracting the lead from the sand itself and selling it for 36 US cents per kg. Soon they had organised into groups of ten, which collectively could make hundreds of dollars per day, according to Diaw.
“The area became a huge market with people from elsewhere flocking here looking for lead. The ground was black, our clothes and our furniture were black because of the lead dust. It was like the gold that you keep until the next payment,” Diaw said.
They gathered so much lead that they started to store it in their houses. And the practice continued even after the first child died on the eve of the Muslim festival Tabaski on 20 December 2007. “We didn’t know of the dangers,” Diaw said.
The government has set up an inter-ministerial commission to address the problem and will be sending in an assessment team to do a follow-up survey to gauge how many more people may be affected.
Meanwhile an emergency government team has sealed the area and preliminarily decontaminated it, stripping the lead-filled sand and removing up to 290 tonnes of lead stored in residents’ houses. “We are assured that the residues of lead dust have disappeared,” Dr. Yaradou said.
But not all of the residents are convinced. “In Ngagne Diaw everything is poisoned by lead, even our mattresses. It is a major public health problem,” said one.
According to Yaradou, the environment ministry will be returning to the area in coming weeks to clean it more thoroughly and to dump new sand on the streets.
Replacing the sand will cost US$120 a truckload with hundreds of truckloads required.
In the meantime Lamine Diédhiou, head of the health centre at Thiaroye/Mer wants children to be kept away. “We think the children should be kept away from the site as long as there is a residue. If they are treated only to return, there is no point in treating them.”
Some of the critically ill children were found to have eight times the emergency threshold levels of lead in their blood, according to toxicologists.
The UN has recommended that residents leave the area while it is decontaminated, but some are refusing to go. “To move is not the solution, the government can clean up the site while we’re still on it,” said one.
Meanwhile some of the endangered children who have already received intensive medical care are now in an after-care house in Ginndi, a suburb of Dakar, where they are being monitored by a team of social workers and doctors.
“On the whole the children are going well. Initially, they were nervous. Now they are very relaxed and approach us if they need us,” said Fatimata Gadiaga, a social worker.
However according to a survey undertaken by WHO and the Dakar anti-poison centre, two thirds of them are at risk of suffering long-term neurological damage.
Treating these children costs US$2,000 per patient according to Louis-Etienne Vigneault, spokesperson at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While WHO has put up US$60,000 for the first 31 cases, Coly says “the health ministry will need to continue [treating] the others. They have the capacity and the competency to do it.”
Families themselves are not in a position to pay, particularly given many of them have lost their source of income. Demba Diaw, whose four-year-old son fell ill from lead poisoning in March, told IRIN he couldn’t count how high the medical bills became during the illness but the first was US$120 and nearly crippled the family. The boy went on to die.
To eradicate the practice over the long-term activists are calling for the government to launch a public-awareness campaign to demonstrate to people the ravages of lead poisoning.
Meanwhile residents of Ngagne Diaw who have lost their main source of income are at a loss as to what to do next.
No one has any long-term solutions. “We are not yet at the stage of considering alternative livelihoods for these people. Let’s first do the analysis and find the children who have been poisoned… we can find more solutions after that.” Vigneault said.
But he added, “It is of course important to eradicate the source of the problem, rather than simply addressing individual cases – that would be the goal.”