According to a statement from the United Nations (UN) this week, as many as 400 children in Nigeria have died this year from lead poisoning. Previously, reported cases had been half this number. But the Dutch arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has issued new figures for the number of children it believes have been killed by lead. And the aid organisation is still treating a further 500 poisoned children across its 4 clinics, most of them below the age of five.
A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that in the northern state of Zamfara, the pollution caused by lead contamination from illegal mining of gold is far from over. Villagers are digging up the lead ore which contains the gold and then processing it near to their homes. The work is often carried out by women and young children. Thousands are feared to be at risk from the activity, unless there is an urgent and organised response to the crisis.
Following a request from the Nigerian government, a UN team went to assess the situation. The UN mission found that in four out of every five villages in remote areas of Zamfara, supplies of water contain high levels of lead contamination. High concentrations of lead inside the body can damage nervous and reproductive systems, as well as the kidneys. Lead ingestion is particularly dangerous in young children, because their size makes them more vulnerable to its effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women can also pass on the lead to their children, because the metal can be absorbed through the placenta and is contained in the mother’s milk.
When children first fell ill in Zamfara, with symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and headaches, and in more serious cases with seizures and delirium, parents initially thought the sickness and convulsions were due to malaria. But a team of visiting doctors who were undertaking an annual immunisation programme realised something must be very wrong. Children were dying in unusually high numbers and in some villages there were virtually no children left.
Investigations pointed to poisoning when scientists realised that lead ore was being dumped nearby by miners. Lead deposits are then washed by rains into wells and other water sources. MSF has confirmed that many more deaths than originally reported are due to lead and fear more children will be affected by the slow-acting poison.
In June, teams of workers tried to remove the decontamination from villages, by taking away topsoil. But the UN is calling for more action to be taken to ensure sources of lead are removed. Otherwise hundreds more children could face a slow and agonising death.