Thursday, July 17, 2008
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.
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 told IRIN.
Demba Diaw one
of the 1,000 residents of Ngagne Diaw, the most-affected neighbourhood
in Thiaroye/Mer, told IRIN, “Here no one is safe from ingesting lead –
it is in the dust that covers are houses and in the liquid that we
Dr. Hassane Yaradou, adviser to the health minister
confirmed “Levels of lead remain high in homes and in the surrounding
How the lead got there
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
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.
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 told IRIN.
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.
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 told IRIN.
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.
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.”
of the critically ill children were found to have eight times the
emergency threshold levels of lead in their blood, according to
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.
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
"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.
according to a survey undertaken by WHO and the Dakar anti-poison
centre, two thirds of them are at risk of suffering long-term
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.
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.
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.”
Source: IRIN NEWS http://irinnews.org