6th October, 2010
Lead poisoning has killed more than 400 children under the age of five as a result ofÂ contamination from illegal gold extraction in northern Nigeria, an international aidÂ agency said on Tuesday.
The children died over the last six months in several villages in Zamfara state, whereÂ lead-rich run-off from illegal gold mining has entered the soil and water supply, saidÂ Medecines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF).
â€œBased on the record of fatalities from lead poisoning, more than 400 children have diedÂ in the last six months,â€ said El-Shafii Muhammad Ahmad, MSF project director in Zamfara.
â€œBut we in MSF believe the figure is much more than that,â€ he told AFP by telephone.
Preliminary findings by UN experts on the contamination in Zamfara state, which wereÂ released on Tuesday, said that â€œgrowing amounts of children are dying from leadÂ poisoning.â€
Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN office for the Coordination of HumanitarianÂ Affairs, told AFP in Geneva that more than 3,000 children lived in seven affectedÂ villages in an area of high-intensity wildcat gold mining.
Byrs said many parents were afraid to come forward when their children fell ill, orÂ mistook symptoms including convulsions with malaria.
â€œThe pollution is far from over in these areas, we have looked at five villages,â€ ByrsÂ told journalists following the release of a joint OCHA-United Nations EnvironmentalÂ Programme (UNEP) report into the poisoning.
Women and children often participated in the makeshift processing of lead-rich ore toÂ extract the gold, and crushed rock often ended up being taken into homes, MSF said.Â Residue was discarded haphazardly in the open, exposing children to inhalation orÂ ingestion of contaminants.
â€œThe lead pollution and intoxication crisis in Zamfara State is far from over. In fact,Â we have only seen the tip of iceberg,â€ the UN report said.
However, the Nigerian governmentâ€™s chief epidemiologist disputed the MSF figures.
â€œThe MSF figure on the death toll is not true,â€ said Henry Akpan, who declined to provideÂ a government toll, adding that there had not been â€œany new deaths in the past weeksâ€.
â€œWe now have good treatment for children, pregnant women and those affected,â€ he said.
But MSFâ€™s Ahmad said even the 400 deaths â€œis an under-estimation because manyÂ lead-related deaths are never reported and in many cases, these communities attributeÂ them to other factors or deny them altogether.â€
Local communities mainly concealed or denied the fatalities and illnesses from leadÂ poisoning for fear that authorities will ban their mining activities, he added.
Illicit gold mining is more lucrative than agriculture for the impoverished farmingÂ communities.
The UN report, which follows a fact-finding visit to the region, said lead poisoning wasÂ spreading in mining communities in northwestern Zamfara.
â€œThe list of polluted villages continues to grow,â€ it said, adding that there were signsÂ of resumed mining activities in Dareta, one of two villages decontaminated by a US-basedÂ environmental firm.
The study focused on ground water pollution in the affected areas of the state and foundÂ â€œhighly fluctuatingâ€ concentrations of lead in samples after a survey of five of theÂ villages.
Contamination levels of up to 10 times above maximum standards were recorded in waterÂ wells in two villages.
â€œThe concentrations of lead in ponds and rivers are often not meeting the drinking waterÂ standards for lead,â€ the report added.
Symptoms of lead poisoning normally build up over long periods as the heavy metalÂ accumulates in the human body, producing abdominal pain, nervous disorders affectingÂ growth and ultimately leading to kidney failure.
Children, especially fast growing under five year-olds, are most at risk.