Lead Poisoning Kills 163 in Nigeria

Published on Sunday 6th June 2010

Lead poisoning caused by illegal gold mining has killed 163 Nigerians, including 111 children, since March in several remote villages in northern Nigeria, a senior government official said yesterday.

International aid agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, are assisting Nigerian authorities in containing the outbreak in four villages in Zamfara State.

"We have a total of 355 cases and 163 deaths," Dr Henry Akpan, the health ministry's chief epidemiologist, said.

"They were digging for gold, but the areas also have large concentrations of lead."

Akpan said many of the victims died after touching tools, soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead. Authorities have stopped the illegal mining and have begun evacuating some residents.

It was also gathered that the number has been rising since March, when residents started digging illegally for gold in areas with high concentrations of lead.

The victims were from several remote villages in the northern state of Zamfara.

A total of 163 out of 355 cases of poisoning have proved fatal.

Health authorities have set up two camps in the area to treat people who are suffering symptoms of lead poisoning.

The deaths were discovered during the country's annual immunisation programme, when officials realised there were virtually no children in several remote villages in the northern state.

Villagers said the children had died of malaria and it was only when a team from international agency Medecins Sans Frontier took blood tests from local people that the high concentrations of lead were discovered.

Zamfara State had recently employed a Chinese company to mine gold in the area.

But villagers had also attempted to capitalise on this by digging for the precious metal themselves - an illegal activity in Nigeria.

It is likely locals became sick after lead removed during the process of refining gold ore contaminated local water systems.