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January 7, 11

NEWS / UN urges Nigeria to prevent further lead poisoning after recent cases

7 January 2011 – The United Nations has urged Nigeria to prevent further lead poisoning in the north and to implement measures to limit lead ore processing at sensitive sites, such as water sources which can easily become contaminated with the heavy metal.

In a new report completed late last month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) also called for the cleaning up of contaminated villages as soon as possible to ensure that children suffering from lead poisoning can return to their villages for recovery and follow-up care after receiving treatment.

Abnormally high rates of death and illness among children have been recorded since the beginning of last year in Bukkuyum and Anka areas of Zamfara state in northern Nigeria.

Investigations by the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit revealed that the cause of the health problems is acute lead poisoning from the processing of lead-rich ore used in the gold extraction process in homes and compounds in the affected areas. More than 18,000 people have been affected and 200 children have reportedly died as a result of the poisoning.

The new report is based on the findings of a sampling and analysis mission requested by Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health in September. The mission was supported by four technical experts and used equipment from the Environmental Assessment Module (EAM), a mobile laboratory designed and assembled specifically for international deployment and provided by the Government of the Netherlands.

The mission focused on determining the quantities of lead in ground and surface water, building on previous investigations in Zamfara state. High levels of lead pollution were found in the soil, and mercury levels in the air were determined to be nearly 500 times the acceptable limit.

Investigators found that drinking water from wells did not meet the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and Nigerian standards for lead limits – 10 micrograms per litre – and that, in at least one case, the limit was exceeded by more than tenfold.

Water in ponds were often highly contaminated, according to the report, but no boreholes were found to have been contaminated, indicating that lead pollution most likely remains confined to areas where processing took place, and has not yet spread throughout the groundwater.

The soil in the four villages visited that have not been cleaned up was often highly polluted with lead, according to the report, which noted the tendency of young children to ingest soil as part of their normal hand-to-mouth behaviour exposed them to high concentrations of lead.

In the air, the levels of mercury were found to be nearly 500 times the maximum exposure for non-industrial workers in the Netherlands.

The response to the contamination will involve medical care for the most severe cases of lead poisoning among children under the age of five, and decontamination of houses and villages, the report noted.

Both activities are needed because medical treatment alone is ineffective if children return home to contaminated homes and are re-exposed to lead.

Children over the age of five, as well as adults, who have been tested in the affected areas also have extremely high levels of lead in their blood and may require treatment.

The medical response is being lead by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Holland), with WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supporting local authorities and the Nigerian Ministry of Health. The UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has allocated $2 million in response to the crisis.




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