Lead poisoning crisis ongoing International medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today accepted a 2011 Green Star Award for leadership in environmental emergencies, at a ceremony in Bern, Switzerland. MSF’s most recent environmental emergency response began in northern Nigeria in March 2010, and is still ongoing. There MSF is treating more than 1000 children for lead poisoning in several villages in Zamfara state. It is one of the most serious cases of acute heavy metal poisoning ever recorded.
MSF staff treating a child for lead poisoning in a village in Zamfara state, northwestern Nigeria. “MSF welcomes the Green Star Award. It offers an opportunity to continue highlighting this environmental health crisis,” says MSF Emergency Manager Lauren Cooney, who accepted the award on behalf of the organization. “MSF again calls for more assistance with the vital, ongoing response to lead poisoning in northern Nigeria. There are limits to what we can do as an emergency aid organization.” The lead poisoning results from the processing of gold ore in residential compounds, where people are exposed to toxic levels of lead found in the ore. Young children are particularly vulnerable to severe symptoms, and even death. Older children and adults are also at risk of long-term health problems. MSF is working with several partners in responding to this serious, ongoing crisis – namely the Nigerian government, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and TerraGraphics/Blacksmith Foundation, who have decontaminated seven of the affected villages. MSF has provided medical aid during the acute phase of this emergency. But this is just the beginning of what must be a sustained, long-term response to the problem of heavy metal poisoning in northern Nigeria. More progress is needed in planning and implementing the medium- to long-term response to the crisis. Patients with lead poisoning will require long-term care and follow-up. Other actors urgently need to assume responsibility for this long-term care. Further, facilities and programs must be put in place in Zamfara state to ensure that people who engage in small-scale gold mining are able to mine and process the ore under safe conditions. If the root of the problem is not properly addressed, people will continue to be at risk of developing lead poisoning. Green Star Awards are presented every two years to individuals, organizations and donors who have made remarkable efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to environmental emergencies around the world. The awards are presented by the UN Environment Programme, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Green Cross International.