An unprecedented outbreak of lead poisoning linked to a gold rush has killed at least 200 children in northern Nigeria this year, with a further 18,000 people affected.
Announcing the figures, the UN said it had sent an emergency team to assess the full impact of the “acute massive lead poisoning” in Zamfara state, where seven villages have so far been confirmed as contaminated. In all cases, villagers had been grinding ore by hand to search for gold when they unwittingly freed lead particles also contained in the rock.
The quantities of lead released into the dust and soil were large enough to kill children — most of the deaths were among under aged five — while also causing deafness, blindness, brain damage and muscular problems.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducted a preliminary study into the deaths, said that the scale of the problem was “unprecedented in CDC’s work with lead poisoning worldwide.”
More people have died in the affected villages this year than in community-wide disasters anywhere in the world over the past 40 years, according to TerraGraphics, an environmental engineering firm involved in the clean-up operation.
“This is an incredibly serious and worrying situation,” said Lauren Cooney, emergency manager at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been helping with the response.
In one village 30 percent of children under five had died this year due to poisoning, MSF said.
“While we still don’t know the full extent of the problem, we expect that there are going to be medium and long-term health effects for people in these villages,” Cooney said.
All mining has been banned in Zamfara state for several months as a result of the disaster, and local officials insist the situation is under control, even though their response has been hampered by heavy rains that have made the isolated villages difficult to reach.
However, new cases of poisoning are still being reported. MSF recently found dangerous levels of lead in two more villages where mining has occurred and believes the total number of affected people exceeds 30,000.
Sadiq Abubakar Sadauki, special assistant to the governor of Zamfara, said ore obtained from a village called Sunke, which contained very high levels of lead, had caused most of the fatalities.
“The problem was not the mining of the gold, it was the processing. People have no machines to detect gold and other minerals, so they used their hands,” he said.
Authorities in northern Nigeria were first alerted to the problem in March, when numerous children in villages in the Bukkuyum and Anka areas of Zamfara suddenly had convulsions and then died.
Called in to help, MSF doctors initially suspected malaria or meningitis, but when treatments did not work they tested for heavy metals. Results from blood and soil samples showed lead levels so high that they exceeded the machines’ upper testing limits.
Children were especially vulnerable to fatal poisoning because of their small size and their tendency to play in the contaminated dust. The rate of deaths among children in the worst-affected villages is more than three times that normally seen in refugee camps during emergencies, the UN said.
MSF has also recorded high levels of lead in adults’ blood, which though not immediately fatal could have severe consequences over time, including stillbirths, kidney problems and male sterility.
Under a government-led clean-up project, the contaminated topsoil in two villages has been removed, disposed of safely and replaced with clean soil. But the process is moving slowly, and there are fears that contaminated water sources will remain dangerous for some time.
The UN emergency team that has just arrived in Zamfara includes specialists from the WHO and UNICEF.
They are equipped with a mobile laboratory and hope to assess the magnitude of the problem and design a response. The UN said that besides lead, the soil was likely to be contaminated with copper and mercury, which is used by some villagers during the sluicing process to separate the gold from rock particles.
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