A Case for Forward-Looking Environmental Risk Communication Around Lead Poisoning in Northern Nigeria

April 1, 2021

Eve Robinson

Eve Robinson is a fourth-year student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Huntsman Program. She is concentrating in Environmental Policy and Management at Wharton and studying International Studies in the College. Her interests are in environmental justice, education policy, and urban sustainable development.

From 2010 to 2013, more than 16,000 people across eight villages located within a stretch of gold-rich land in the Nigerian states of Zamfara and Niger were exposed to lead poisoning while engaged in illegal subsistence mining; more than 400 children died of lead poisoning and 2,000 children became permanently disabled.

The gold-rich lands of the Northern and Middle Belt segments of Nigeria also contain lead, the unintentional mining of which resulted in the poisoning of many communities through three main ways: gold refining, food contamination, and latent exposure vis-à-vis soil and water. Given the illegal and subsistence nature of these mining activities, many families lack access to proper safety equipment and facilities, making these mining activities even more dangerous to the communities. In this context, subsistence mining refers to families or communities that participate in mining activities as a primary source of income for food, much in the same way subsistence farming provides just enough for a family’s basic essentials.

Despite the Zamfara state government and humanitarian organizations successfully decreasing the soil lead levels dramatically, some are concerned these results may not be long-lasting. The Nigerian federal government announced an economic shift to promote legal corporate gold mining in June of 2020 in order to reduce national economic reliance on oil production, encourage economic diversification, and make up for COVID-19 losses. Those that criticize this plan fear it may also inadvertently revitalize the illegal subsistence mining economy that killed so many in 2010. In anticipation of this worst-case scenario, the lessons from failures in risk communication of nearly a decade ago must be rigorously applied today.

In 2012, humanitarian organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières staged several interventions aimed at testing the blood lead levels of children, remediating nearby land, and educating families about lead poisoning from gold mining. However, in a 2016 follow-up in Niger state, independent reporters found that although soil lead levels had decreased, there were still large numbers of families mining. It is important to acknowledge that addressing the poverty which drives subsistence mining economies would be the direct, long-term, solution to this problem. However, for those that continued to mine, humanitarian organizations have noted that even basic health precautions that would mitigate lead exposure (for example, avoiding washing lead dust into communal streams) have been ignored by some locals, suggesting that there is ineffective risk communication around the personal and environmental effects of lead poisoning. In the short-term, better risk communication could help mitigate some of these harms, especially as more impoverished families are enticed back to illegal subsistence mining by the growth of the Nigerian gold market.

A crucial aspect of effective risk communication is identifying the mental models of the target population. According to Philip Johnson-Laird, mental models were defined as early as 1943 by Kenneth Craik who described them as, ‘small-scale models that not only represent how we view relationships and connections, but that also allow for scenario-planning and predictions.’ Understanding the assumptions and logic that a target population may hold is vital component to effectively communicating information that seeks to change existing behaviors. Accordingly, there are two main areas in which risk communication can address mental model misconceptions about gold mining and lead poisoning: origin-based misconceptions and practice-based misconceptions.

Origin-based Misconceptions

An effective risk communication strategy would first identify the mental model of the target population, adjust risk communication to account for said mental model, and then prescribe a set of risk-mitigating behaviors. In order to successfully promote behavioral and lifestyle changes, risk communicators must first understand what misconceptions may be prevalent. In the case of lead poisoned communities in Zamfara and Niger, there were misconceptions about the origin of abnormal child mortality.

Prior to state government and humanitarian intervention, local families held various inaccurate beliefs about the cause of acknowledged abnormally high rates of child mortality, including malaria, taboo behaviors, and ancestral anger. Those that believed malaria was the cause of increased child mortality would likely implicitly subscribe to a mental model that links prolonged illness to death. Thus, a risk communication strategy would need to inform these individuals about lead exposure risks from mining while discussing lead poisoning as an illness in order to discourage subsistence mining, or to promote enhanced safety precautions around mining.

However, for those that believed the child mortalities were the result of ancestral anger and taboos, their mental model would much more closely resemble one that ascribes early deaths to otherworldly interventions. For these individuals, their desired solution (stop engaging in behaviors offensive to ancestors) would be dissonant with a risk communicator’s solution (stop engaging in subsistence mining or procure better safety equipment). Despite this dissonance, effective assessment of the target population’s mental model around child mortality could help governments and international organizations not only shift mental models, but also promote risk mitigating behaviors.

Changing mental models is not easy, however.  One such difficulty arises from the herding bias. Herding is a cognitive bias that arises from the desire to preserve and protect reputational status by conforming to what peers do. Herding likely has a strong effect on decision makers in these communities which are sparsely populated and rurally located. Within these isolated communities where work, social, religious, and familial communities are tightly woven, the stakes for going against a widely held belief are high; a person risks becoming an outcast in all aspects of life. Thus, not only do Médecins Sans Frontières and the federal Nigerian government need to challenge local cultural beliefs, they are also dealing with challenging cognitive biases.

Practice-based Misconceptions

In addition to origin-based misconceptions, there are also knowledge-based misconceptions that must be addressed in order to effectively communicate the risks associated with subsistence mining. This set of misconceptions refers to locals who post-intervention, in continuing to mine, disregard basic safety protocol, suggesting they may lack information about the specific practices that increase risk of lead poisoning exposure. Given that one of the purposes of risk communication is to help people make informed decisions, resolving these knowledge-based misconceptions is crucial to reducing the overall prevalence of unsafe mining practices in underground economies.

One of the largest misconceptions is that only those directly involved in the process of mining are at risk of exposure. This can cause some households to believe they are taking a calculated risk by having only the adults mine for gold. However, due to the rudimentary facilities in which many families process gold (oftentimes inside one-room houses, near water sources, or near animal pens), the exposure risks extend far beyond those who mine and process, and also far beyond the hours in which one is actually mining. During the initial surveys of Zamfara, it was found that lead poisoned the water streams and fish, crops and cattle, and even the mud walls of houses.

This is another mental model issue. If residents believe that lead exposure stops at the moment one leaves the mine, washes, and changes clothes, they are less likely to take actions to prevent other harms. Communication needs to be explicit that washing off lead dust in a freshwater stream pollutes a source of communal drinking and bathing water, as well as potentially kills a source of food (the animals that rely on said stream for water or habitat). Shifting the mental models of local residents to perceive the risks of gold mining more holistically, rather than being contained to the actual mine itself, would be an important step in helping residents make informed decisions about participating in subsistence gold mining.

As the Nigerian federal government continues to encourage economic diversification through the newly emerging corporate gold mining industry, increased attention to such risk communication strategies will be necessary. While it is unlikely that a strategy focused purely on risk communication could wholly eliminate subsistence mining in Nigeria, it can encourage more informed decision-making that could steer many families away from the most dangerous of practices. In the long-term, poverty-elimination policies will be needed in order to wholly eradicate the conditions which force families to make the unthinkable choice between their children’s health and food on the table.