UN investigates Nigeria lead poisoning deaths

Two young boys stand next to a water hole in Dareta village, Zamfara state (June 2010) Lead-contaminated soil was dumped in water sources and areas where children played

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The UN has sent an emergency environmental team to Nigeria to investigate the deaths of more than 200 children this year from lead poisoning.

Specialists from several agencies are to take water and soil samples from an area in in the north of the country.

The source of the poisoning has been traced to lead-contaminated waste dumped from illegal gold mining.

The contamination is thought to have affected as many as 18,000 people, a UN spokeswoman said.

"From the latest figures we have, more than 200 children reportedly died from this poisoning," said Elisabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the UN's Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Five specialists from the World Health Organisation and Unicef are to spend almost two weeks in Nigeria. They will analyse the soil and drinking water in an area around seven villages in Zamfara state to assess the scale of the poisoning.

"Proper sampling from the mobile laboratory is urgently needed to determine the scope and magnitude of the crisis and to assist in developing a rigorous response," OCHA said in a statement.


  • Children suffer more because their size makes them more vulnerable to the effects
  • Symptoms include lethargy, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and headaches
  • Children in particular may develop encephalopathy - seizures, delirium and coma
  • For mild poisoning it may be sufficient to remove the patient from the source
  • More severe poisoning will need medical treatment, but may prove fatal

The clean up operation will involve the removal of tonnes of contaminated top soil and replacing it with clean soil, the UN said.

The rainy season could slow the operation down and even spread the contamination, Ms Byrs said.

To extract gold, deadly amounts of lead were released and soil containing lead deposits was dumped in water sources and in places where children played.

The contamination was discovered earlier this year during the country's annual immunisation programme, when visiting doctors realised children in the region were dying in unusually large numbers. In several villages they saw there were virtually no children.

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

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