U-Idaho Alumni & Students who worked in Nigeria
Cara Haley
  Sarah Weppner
  Abubakaarr Mansaray
  Abe Hannah
  Simba Tirima
  Luis Guerrero
  Sonny Thornborrow
  Morgan Gardner
  Margrit von Braun
  Zac Bishop

Related Undergraduate Degrees

Contact Research

Office of Research

Office of Research & Economic Development
phone: 208-885-6689

Physical Location
Morrill Hall 105

Mailing Address
875 Perimeter Drive MS 3010
University of Idaho
Moscow, ID 83844-3010
Nigerian children grinding stone for gold

What was killing the children?

In Nigeria, a dedicated team of University of Idaho researchers works to solve a mystery claiming hundreds of lives.
By Paula M. Davenport | Photos courtesy of Luis Guerrero | Originally Published In: Here We Have Idaho

When Doctors Without Borders began visiting remote, far-flung Nigerian villages to immunize residents last year, what they found was heartbreaking, unprecedented and mysterious. By the time they’d made their rounds, they’d discovered 400 infants and children in seven separate villages – all hours away from one another – had died excruciating deaths. Most of those who died were under the age of five. In each case, it was the same scenario: the children would begin convulsing, fall into a coma and eventually die.

Margrit Von Braun and her husband, Ian von Lindern – in collaboration with a dedicated core team of University students and alumni – were asked to join a team of international emergency responders.
Looking back, it’s clear. The global economy was playing out with horrific results, said Margrit von Braun, University of Idaho professor emerita of chemical engineering and environmental science, and former dean of the College of Graduate Studies. Zamfara – the area von Braun’s team focused on – is located on the edge of the Sahara Desert and is primarily home to the Muslim Hausa tribe. Subsistence farmers, they build walled, mud-hut compounds where the men live with multiple wives, their children and perhaps a goat, donkey or camel. Conditions are bleak. People live on less than $3 a day. Malaria, cholera and polio sicken many. Unemployment, lack of schools, political unrest and a cash-only economy plague the region. In winter, the harmattan – a hot, dry trade wind – blows over vast expanses of the region, kicking up ever-pervasive red dust as far as the eye can see. In spring and summer, monsoons convert the soil to insidious muck. Temperatures are either hot and dry, or hot and wet.

Separating GoldWhen villagers discovered they could better support their families mining for gold flakes, it seemed their lives might finally get a little better, said von Lindern, an affiliate professor of chemical engineering at the University. His wife and he own TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering, a Moscow, Idaho-based consulting firm established in 1984. Globally, gold prices were skyrocketing as financial markets in the United States and Europe spiraled downward. In North Africa, shady buyers haunted bustling outdoor markets stalls. So the industrious Hausa men took up gold extraction in earnest. Using just their hands and simple tools, they’d break big chunks of rock and compacted soil from veins of ore. They hauled it all home in overstuffed wheat sacks, said Casey Bartrem, an incoming U-Idaho graduate student and TerraGraphics’ employee. Hausa women and children took over from there, setting up in yards just outside their homes. For hours on end, they hammered the stone-hard ore into smaller pieces. Then, they ran the rock chips through the same makeshift machines and vessels they used to grind millet. Dust from the labor-intensive work coated their hands and clothes and the insides of their huts. Much of it fell into stagnant ponds where they watered their cattle and drew drinking water.

Call to Action

In May 2010, von Lindern was giving a presentation in Bozeman, Mont., on mining and smelting hazards when an urgent call came in.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which hosted the conference, told von Lindern it needed TerraGraphics’ help.
Respected worldwide, TerraGraphics is under contract to clean up one of America’s most toxic places – the Bunker Hill Superfund site in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
Within days of that call – von Lindern and two company employees – both U-Idaho graduate students – were digging in Africa, looking for clues to the scope, pathways and possible remedies for the Nigerian epidemic. Bartrem, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, and Simba Tirima, a Kenya native and U-Idaho doctoral student in environmental science, rallied to the challenge.

Once in country, they expected their initial environmental assessments would take about two weeks to complete.  Von Braun said projects such as this are why her firm created the International Environmental Health and Restoration Initiative, a joint research and development program with U-Idaho. It provides University students with opportunities to engage in real-world environmental research experiences, especially in developing nations. The initiative’s goal is to adopt and apply environmental cleanup methodologies used in the United States to hazardous waste sites in poorer countries. In the past five years, TerraGraphics has provided internships and project experience for more than a dozen U-Idaho students in Russia, China, the Dominican Republic, Senegal and Nigeria.

What they found

Once in country, the trio visited affected Nigerian enclaves to conduct soil characterization tests. Tirima said from the start, there was an eerie quality in the villages. “Everywhere you go in Africa, children like to sing,” he said. “But it was dead silent in the Nigerian villages. The music had been knocked out of the kids; you could really feel it.
U-Idaho Graudate Students Looking for Clues About the Deaths”Armed with hand-held, low-dose X-ray equipment, they fanned out across the village of Dareta, detecting the presence of various metals and other elements in rock, soil and water. “We were finding lead levels in residential areas of 10,000 parts per million or ppm – that’s more than 20 times higher than is considered safe in the United States [400 ppm],” said Bartrem. It was the world’s worst-ever acute case of lead poisoning in recorded history. “Some villages had lost 30 percent to 40 percent of the children under the age of five,” von Lindern said.
TerraGraphics’ investigations proved that the valuable gold, mined so aggressively by villagers, was laden with deadly amounts of lead; the dust created in the grinding process dispersed the toxic heavy metal. Because poisonous mercury also was used during extraction, the water and soil contained dangerously high amounts of it, too. “We were under extreme pressure to remediate as many compounds as soon as possible,” von Lindern said Meanwhile, the sickest kids were being hospitalized or treated for 28 days straight with oral medications in Doctors Without Borders clinics specifically set up to handle the emergency. “They couldn’t return home if their surroundings were still contaminated or they would just get sick again,” said Bartrem.

Older child survivors will suffer such lasting effects of lead poisoning as permanent brain damage, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems and organ damage, doctors say.“There’s going to be an entire lost generation,” said Tirima. He and Bartrem ended up spending June and July last year sampling in and around the villages and mapping them down to every compound. The August rainy season sent them back to Idaho until fall. But they would be back.

A Safer Future

Facts & FiguresNigeria’s existing cultural, political and economic realities called for sensitive and creative solutions, von Lindern said. “We didn’t want to just go in, clean things up and leave,” he said.” We viewed ourselves as assistants to the Nigerian government. Our goal was to design a feasible plan that villagers could adopt and carry out themselves.” Quick action was imperative. “You’ve got to figure it out right now. People were waiting. We didn’t want to lose one more life,” Bartrem said.

With blessings from state and local Nigerian emirs, von Lindern hatched plans inspired by practical lessons he’d learned as a boy on his grandfather’s Buhl, Idaho, farm. Here’s how the solution worked: Hausa men were paid to work side-by-side using duplicates of the hoes they used in crop tending. They scraped off the top layer of tainted dirt, stored it in specially marked bags for burial in dedicated landfills and spread several inches of clean soil over the excavated areas. Safety precautions – including the use of particle masks and clothes worn only at work sites – while novel ideas to the Hausa, were readily adopted von Braun said.

Within the compounds, environmental remediation meant adjusting some tribal customs. Local traditions require married women traditionally spend their entire lives inside the compound’s walls and only their husbands and children may come and go, so special dispensation was required for other men to enter and decontaminate each compound.

“It was a huge operation,” said von Lindern. “We were joined by more than a dozen international agencies, 80 Nigerian government staff, 350 Hausa laborers, and dozens of trucks and pick-ups.”
All in all, the project flew in 28 TerraGraphics employees and international volunteers, including 10 U-Idaho alumni and students to see the job through. They worked 12- to 14-hour days, nourished by rice and beans, African-made jerky, protein bars and bottled water.

Potentially violent election rallies delayed the TerraGraphics team for several days. Yet by March 2011, 430 compounds and 30 ponds had been decontaminated.

Nigeria Group Photo Of Workers“Kids were running around playing and singing,” said Tirima. “We saw whole communities come back to life. I’d like to believe, in part, it’s because we’ve had the privilege to help out.” He and his teammates are deeply moved by the warmth and appreciation shown by the villagers. “You don’t need all that stuff we’re used to here to even make a difference in a place like that,” he said. “You just need to have the heart.”

Learn how you can support outreach efforts like this - Give To Idaho