Gold in general has great PR. It's slick, it's hip, it's bling. But in a remote corner of West Africa, it's killing children.
Lead from illegal gold mines in northwestern Nigeria has sparked what Doctors Without Borders has called the worst case of environmental lead poisoning in years.
And this catastrophe is part of the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. housing market. OK, maybe this seems like a stretch — African kids dying because of bad loans — but stick with me.
Gold has long been viewed as a financial safe haven. For years, it traded for a few hundred dollars an ounce and produced modest gains for investors. Then the U.S. housing bubble began to deflate in late 2006 and early 2007, sending Wall Street into a tailspin and setting off a global economic crisis that sent investors rushing to buy precious metals.
Gold prices shot up from $600 an ounce in 2006 to a record of nearly $1,900 an ounce in 2011. This prompted farmers in Zamfara state in Nigeria to revisit some local rock outcroppings that supposedly held flecks of gold.
Unfortunately, that ground also held lethal amounts of lead. Miners by hand hack tunnels into veins of quartz. They smash the rocks with salvaged auto parts (axels are popular for bludgeoning) and then grind the ore into a powder in flour mills. It's at this grinding stage that lead dust flies through the air and, eventually, makes its way into the blood streams of local children.
At lower gold prices, these mines weren't worth the trouble. A Nigerian miner can work all day to extract a BB-sized lump of gold that'll fetch $20 or $30. This is good money in a place where most people earn less than $2 a day.
Ten years ago, this mining wasn't so tempting. The work was just as hard, but the men would only earn half or a third of what they do now. And most of them chose not to.
NPR photographer David Gilkey and I traveled to some of these artisanal gold mines. Be sure to check out the video from our reporting trip.
We also visited the local clinics being run by Doctors Without Borders, where kids with astronomical blood lead levels were being treated. I spoke with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about the story; Saturday's audio will be available at the top of this post. We also filed a report for All Things Considered earlier this week.