LAGOS, Nigeria — A lead poisoning outbreak that has killed more than 400 children in the rural farmlands of northern Nigeria remains "a neglected, underfunded emergency," the U.N. warned Friday, saying many villages remain coated with the deadly metal.
In a report, U.N. officials said the outbreak in Zamfara state that began in March remains an "alarming, continuing health risk" for an unknown number of villages.
The report released Friday also said that one of the two villages already decontaminated now shows new traces of lead and mercury – a sign the desperately poor in the remote area have again begun mining and processing the gold ore with lead deposits that started the crisis.
"Zamfara state is seeing the health and well-being of its children put in grave danger by this acute and ongoing disaster," the report warned. "More rapid and coordinated intervention is imperative. ... Hundreds have been lost already, and thousands more are at risk."
The existence of gold deposits in this area along the border of Niger had been long known. But it wasn't until gold prices soared in recent years that villagers began heading into the bush to search for it. Soon the poor herdsmen and farmers could sell gold for more than $23 a gram – a huge sum in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day.
However, the ore brought back to the villages in Zamfara early this year contained extremely high levels of lead. Fathers carried the precious rocks home to store inside their mud-walled compounds, sometimes leaving them on sleeping mats. Wives often broke the rocks and ground them, sending dust and flakes into the villages' communal areas.
High levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, result in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults. In severe cases, it can lead to seizures, coma and death.
It wasn't until 160 children died and others went blind and deaf that authorities realized the region faced a lead poisoning outbreak the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called "unprecedented." An international team of doctors and hazardous waste experts arrived in Zamfara in mid-May to clean the region, but seasonal rains halted their work.
The report, released by the U.N. Environment Program and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is based on field research officials conducted in September and October. Officials traveled to five villages, including the village of Dareta, which had been decontaminated before the rains arrived.
Officials found some well water that contained 10 times the recommended limit of lead, while the soil had as much as 150 times the limit, the report said. Air samples found traces of mercury, used in drawing the gold out of the ore, as much as 500 times the acceptable limit.
The report also raised concerns about livestock drinking contaminated water and later being butchered for food.
In the time since the outbreak, the local government has cracked down on small-scale gold operations. However, the affected villages take hours to get to by dirt roads, making enforcement difficult. The report suggested that government and religious officials warn locals about the dangers of gold mining and teach them not to process ore near their homes.
"Given the reality of extreme poverty in Zamfara state, stopping mining operations without an alternative source of income is not realistic," the report said.
U.N. report: http://bit.ly/hFs8CM