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Lead poisoning continues to plague northen Nigeria

Posted on behalf of Leigh Phillips.

Two years after the plight of hundreds of children in Nigerian villages suffering from acute lead poisoning as a result of illegal gold mining first emerged, the government has done little to tackle the problem, human-rights groups and development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say.

The mysterious deaths of hundreds of children in the northern state of Zamfara were thought by villagers to be the result of malaria, although in some villages almost all of the children had died. It was only when medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also called Doctors Without Borders) in 2010 took blood tests from local people as part of an immunization programme that the reason for the deaths was identified.

More than 400 children have died and some 4,000 have been contaminated by exposure to lead in what the NGO calls one of the worst cases of mass lead poisoning in the modern era. The villages affected, in the dry Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara, are home to subsistence farmers that have taken to small-scale gold mining in recent years as the price of the metal has soared.

Miners break open rocks containing both gold and lead near their homes, sometimes crushing them in flour grinders; soil containing the heavy metal also contaminates water sources.

The lead in the dust is toxic to the bones, heart, intestines, kidneys, and nervous and reproductive systems, and adults are affected by swelling, dizziness, vomiting, organ failure and infertility.

Owing to their small size, children are more sensitive to the poisoning, which can cause permanent learning and behavioural disorders, with symptoms including seizures, anaemia, delirium and coma.

The village of Bagega has been particularly badly affected, with an estimated 1,500 children poisoned.

The MSF has treated 2,500 children with high levels of lead in their blood, but many more are unable to be treated as they continue to be exposed. In these areas, treatment could result in still worse medical conditions.

The government announced it would commit 850 million naira (US$5.4 million) to tackle the situation and educate villagers on safer mining practices. Some work has begun and seven villages have been cleaned up, but much of the cash has yet to be released, the NGOs say.

Human Rights Watch and the MSF criticized the government for not sending any senior officials to a two-day conference this week on the crisis, also attended by the World Health Organization, and suggested that authorities were not taking the situation seriously. The price of gold has doubled since the poisonings were first identified.

“The Nigerian government needs to act now to help thousands of children in Zamfara exposed to lead who are at risk of death or long-term disability,” said Babatunde Olugboji, deputy programme director at Human Rights Watch.

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