NIAMEY, Jan 14 (IPS) – The Societe Nigerienne des Eaux (SNE), Niger’s water company, is being sued because hundreds of children in Tibiri, 720 kilometres from Niger’s capital, Niamey, were poisoned by grossly elevated rates of fluoride in the town’s water.
The children, ranging in age from 15 months to 14 years, contracted skeletal fluorosis, a disease which causes deformities of the bones, according to medical sources.
The children suffer symptoms ranging from stiffness of the joints, arthritic-like symptoms and chronic joint pain, to calcification of the vertebral column, crippling spine and joint deformities, muscle wasting, and neurological defects. Mottling of the teeth is a less serious form of the disease that comes from ingesting lower levels of fluoride (dental fluorosis).
According to Dr. Moussa Koini, who has written a medical dissertation on the topic, the disease is caused by drinking water containing too much fluoride.
Water samples taken in Tibiri from SNE facilities show that the water contains 4.77 to 6.6 milligrams per litre, instead of the maximum 1.5 milligrams recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Out of the 425 recorded cases of children with fluorosis in Tibiri, there are 262 boys and 162 girls, a proportion of 61.79 to 38.21 percent. The age bracket most affected is the three to seven-year-old group. There are 62 three-year-olds and 55 six year olds affected. Sixty-eight percent of the victims are five-year-olds.
According to Dr. Koini, crippling skeletal fluorosis affects mostly children. There have been no reported cases of adults in Tibiri contracting the disease. This is due, he said, to the fact that growing children absorb more fluoride than do adults. Adults can become ill with the disease, but they would need to have drunk heavily fluoridated water for more than 20 years.
Skeletal fluorosis is a very disabling disease. Hadjia Kande, a mother whose two youngest children are paralysed, says life is a daily burden.
”Look at my children. Neither one of them can even go to the toilet by himself. I need to provide them with constant attention, so I can’t regularly get to my job at the cotton mill.”
One of the children, 13-year-old Salissou, expressed how sad he is. ”I’m afraid to drink water from any source, even well water. Look at the state I’m in, it’s really a shame,” he said. Although it disables both boys and girls, the disease is even worse for girls as it can have grave consequences for childbearing.
Dr. Koini explained that ”if there are outgrowths around the pelvic area, girls can have difficulty giving birth and may have to have Caesarian sections because of an inability to deliver vaginally,” he stated.
The origins of the Tibiri tragedy date back to 1983, when the first waterworks was built. The first cases of the illness appeared 10 years later, when many children fell ill.
The Tibiri children’s tragedy has produced a hue and cry from the public, especially human rights groups who specialise in these types of issues.
The Nigerien Association for Human Rights (ANDDH) has recruited a panel of lawyers to defend the victim’s interests. During a recent press conference, the ANDDH chairperson, Khalid Ikhiri, who is also a chemist at the University of Niamey, emphasised the importance of pursuing this matter through the courts so that the children can receive monetary compensation for the damages they have suffered.
”Fluoride poisoning is fatal. Those children will be disabled for the rest of their lives. Every movement they make is painful, and as a result, they cannot engage in the normal play and other activities of children their age,” he added.
Ikhiri’s intention in filing suit against the SNE is also to end the impunity that the company has always enjoyed. ”The SNE needs to answer for this tragedy since it’s their mission to provide the public with pure drinking water,” he said.
Confronted by the indignation the Tibiri affair has aroused and by press condemnations, the director of the SNE, Seyni Salou, declared that the elevated fluoride rate uncovered in Tibiri’s water cannot be pinned on his operation. He said that the standard tests for water purity are regularly performed on all samples.
However, Salou did acknowledge that fluoride is not normally tested for in the standard tests generally performed on drinking water. ”There is rarely a high rate of fluoride in naturally occurring sources. The case of Tibiri is an exception.”
Salou recalls that drilling for water in Tibiri’s substratum took place in 1983 by the Water Office. The SNE did not yet exist at that time.
”At the time this operation was turned over to us, nowhere was it ever mentioned in the technical documents that there was fluoride in the water.”
”Naturally, we continued to distribute water until the health services advised us in 1988 that there was an outbreak of bony lesions among Tibiri’s children. We did every possible analysis of the water, even the most farfetched, and finally figured out that the tap water contained a great deal of naturally occurring fluoride,” Salou stated.
The SNE director believes that more studies still need to be done to be sure that the only cause of the problem is the fluoride. He thinks that the evidence is not yet conclusive. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the ANDDH is in its rights to pursue a suit since the laws of Niger allow for it.
More than compensation for the victims, the provision of healthy water for Tibiri’s citizens is today’s priority. The SNE has confirmed that they have taken steps to bring down the fluoride level to 1.6 milligrams per litre.
Salou indicated that there are permanent changes to be made. Among them is a new water project in the neighbouring town of Maradi. The technical studies have already taken place with help from the Chinese, and work on the new supply project is expected to begin in February 2001.
”Bringing in water from Maradi is the only possible solution because there is fluoride even in Tibiri’s groundwater,” Salou added.
The government has asked Niger’s development partners, most notably UNICEF, to provide assistance to the victims. UNICEF says that a Finnish organisation is ready to finance a community assistance project for Tibiri’s children.
The goal of this project, which should begin in the first quarter of 2001, is to provide therapeutic assistance to the sick children, which will be based on nutritional remedies, physical rehabilitation, and orthopaedic correction.
Salmeye Bebert, the director of child welfare, added that the project will help research the exact scope of the disease and will determine the source of pollution of Tibiri’s water.
Niger’s infant mortality rate of 274 per 1,000 in 1998 was one of the highest in the world. (END/IPS/HE/sa/sz/da/01)