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Posted on : Aug 06, 2008
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 neighborhood 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 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 area.”

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 told

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 told IRIN.

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

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
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