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Lead poisoning plagues Nigerian villages

Associated Press / January 8, 2011

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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 United Nations warned yesterday, saying many villages remain coated with the deadly metal.

In a report, UN 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 yesterday 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 with 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 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. Wives often broke the rocks and ground them, sending dust and flakes into the villages’ communal areas.

It wasn’t until 160 children died and others went blind and deaf that authorities realized the region faced a lead poisoning outbreak. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the crisis “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.

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