The recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the hazardous impacts of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the country on human health and the environmental is disconcerting. According to the global health agency, as many as 850, 000 persons in 12 states of the country were exposed to mercury poisoning as a result of such activities. WHO listed the affected states as Niger, Osun, Zamfara, Kebbi, Katsina, Kaduna, Kwara, Borno, Kaduna, Jigawa, Yobe and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Artisanal and small-scale mining is described as formal or informal mining operations with predominantly simplified forms of exploration, extraction, processing and transportation. In virtually all the states in Nigeria, artisanal and small-scale mining of mineral resources takes place illegally. Over the years, individuals and groups have exploited the government’s abandonment of the country’s vast economic potential in the mining sector, to brazenly explore the mineral resources in the country.
In states with gold deposits, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a major source of income generation for residents and foreigners. Zamfara has become notorious as the home of illegal gold miners. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in the state in recent times due to conflicts among different mining groups. There is palpable fear that the gold miners might relocate to the South and cause more trouble. But not many of the miners seem to understand the harmful effects of their illegal activities to themselves, their compatriots and the environment.
According to the National Consultant, Public Health and Environment (PHE) of the World Health Organisation, Dr Edwin Edeh, mercury, which is widely used to extract gold in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, is a lethal chemical with considerable consequences on human health and the environment.
Some experts have disclosed that the health impacts of mercury may not be immediately noticeable, since the effects manifest over time. But it is public knowledge that communities where artisanal and small-scale gold mining is practised do experience neurologic and kidney effects from mercury exposure, among other health conditions.
The most common effects of mercury exposure are mental retardation, delayed development, seizures as well as vision and hearing loss. The cardiovascular and central nervous systems are the most vulnerable. Exposure to mercury vapour has grave toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, including sensitive organs such as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. It poses serious health threats to unborn babies and children under the age of five. For such kids, extreme exposure can lead to coma or death.
Exposure to mercury for women may result in malformations and miscarriages during pregnancy. Many women have also reported menstrual cycle disorders. The impacts of mercury vapour on the environment are equally potent. As much as 95 per cent of mercury used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining is released into the environment, and mercury air emissions are transported far. Dredging and sluicing during mining may lead to land degradation and river siltation, which ultimately poisons the groundwater used in communities.
The Federal Government and the authorities in the affected states should collaborate and find lasting solutions to the problem. They must interface with the people in the mining communities to urgently curtail this dangerous trend.
We strongly believe that a partnership between the Federal Ministry of Health and the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development is necessary to ensure the safety of miners and residents of mining communities. All forms of unauthorised mining should be criminalised and stopped immediately. The Federal Government should take total charge of mining activities. While proper safety measures must be ensured in the mining sector, it is equally important that Nigerians should be adequately enlightened on the dangers of illegal mining and mercury poisoning.