Artisanal gold mining is gold mining carried out by individuals using hand held tools or small-scale mining methods. We’re well aware that this type of gold mining, which frequently goes unregulated, can be dangerous for miners and their families. Falling rocks, tunnel collapses, and mercury poisoning are among the commonly known health and safety dangers. But rarely do we hear of a gold mining tragedy as devastating as the one unfolding in Zamfara State, an arid state in northern Nigeria. In the last two years, at least 800 children there have died as a result of lead poisoning linked to artisanal gold mining.
How could this have occurred? As gold prices have soared in recent years, residents have been abandoning their traditional farming and herding lifestyles to take up gold mining. The gold mining technique used by local miners involves digging up rocks and crushing them to remove the gold. Unfortunately, the gold-laden rocks near some villages also contain high concentrations of lead. Miners crushing the rocks have been unwittingly releasing lead dust into their soil, water, and homes. Lead levels in drinking water were found, in one case, to be 10 times the legal limit.
Of the hundreds of children that have died from lead poisoning, most are under the age of five. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their physical immaturity and their tendency to play on the ground and ingest soil. In addition to the children who died, many others will suffer lifelong disabilities and health consequences. The health effects for adults—including stillbirths, kidney problems, and male sterility—can be serious as well. In all, the United Nations believes that up to 30,000 people in 180 villages may be affected.
The Nigerian government, the United Nations, and international aid groups are working together to treat the sick and decontaminate the affected villages. It is unclear to what extent miners have discontinued their dangerous gold mining techniques, or how much the risk of lead exposure has abated. But it seems that some children are still not being protected. In October 2010, Doctors without Borders reported the death of 400 children in the previous six months. In March of this year, the United Nations confirmed that another 400 children had died.
At Brilliant Earth, our jewelry is manufactured using recycled precious metals. However, we realize that some gold mining will always take place and that artisanal gold mining is an important income source for people in developing countries. We therefore support recent efforts to establish an international certification system for fair trade gold. Under the newly-established fair trade gold standard, gold miners receive fair prices for their gold and are encouraged to use environmentally-friendly mining techniques. So far, a fair trade gold certification program has been put in place in Latin America only. We hope that someday, fair trade gold can be part of the solution in Nigeria.