First, it took the animals.
Goats fell silent and refused to stand up. Chickens died in handfuls, then en masse. Street dogs disappeared.
Then it took the children. Toddlers stopped talking and their legs gave out. Women birthed stillborns. Infants withered and died.
Some said the houses were cursed. Others said the families were cursed.
The mysterious illness killed 18 children in this town on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, before anyone in the outside world noticed. When they did — when the TV news aired parents’ angry pleas for an investigation, when the doctors ordered more tests, when the West sent health experts — they did not find malaria, or polio or AIDS, or any of the diseases that kill the poor of Africa.
They found lead.
The dirt here is laced with lead left over from years of extracting it from old car batteries.
As the demand for cars has increased, especially in China and India, so has the demand for lead-acid car batteries. About 70 percent of the lead manufactured worldwide goes into car batteries.
Both the manufacturing and the recycling of these batteries has moved mostly to the Third World. Between 2005 and 2006, four waves of lead poisoning involving batteries were reported in China. And in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, lead smelting left 500 people with chronic illnesses and 25 children with brain damage before the government shut it down three years ago, said San Francisco-based OK International, which works on environmental standards for battery manufacturing.
For years, blacksmiths in Thiaroye Sur Mer — a town of 100,000 — extracted lead from car batteries and remolded it into weights for fishing nets. It’s a dangerous, messy process in which workers crack open the batteries with a hatchet and pull small pieces of lead out of skin-burning acid. The work left the dirt of Thiaroye dense with small lead particles.
Then the price of lead climbed, and traders from India came and asked about the dirt. They offered to buy bits of lead by the bag for US$0.60 a kilogram, said Coumba Diaw, a middle-aged mother of two.
So Diaw dug up the dirt with a shovel and carried bags of it back to her house. There, she sat outside and separated out the lead with a sifter. It took just an hour of sifting to make what she did in a day of selling vegetables at the market. She kept her two daughters nearby as she worked.
Then the sicknesses started. The deaths came, one after another, over the five months from October 2007 through March last year.
At first, people thought it was malaria or tuberculosis. Doctors at the local health clinic kept seeing the same symptoms with no response to treatment and started running more tests.
That’s when Demba Diaw’s four-year-old daughter died. First she got a bad fever. Then she started vomiting. Diaw, a 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school, thought it was malaria and took her to the hospital. The next day she was dead.
Diaw started talking to other parents whose children had the same symptoms. They were spending more money each day for more lab tests but not getting any answers. So he called the local media and held a news conference to demand an investigation.
At about the same time, the hospital confirmed lead poisoning.
The WHO was called in.
The government ran blood tests on relatives of the dead children.