163 people die from lead poisoning in northern Nigerian state


AT LEAST 163 people have died from lead poisoning in northern Nigeria, after villagers started digging for gold in areas with high concentrations of the toxic metal.

Henry Akpan, the Nigerian health ministry’s chief epidemiologist, told The Irish Times that 355 people across six villages in Zamfara state had sustained lead poisoning, which would take up to a month to treat in those affected.

“These villages are home to 2-3,000 people, so it is quite a high proportion affected. The fatality rate is 46 per cent.”

However, “we are now on top of the situation”, he added, as there had been no new cases since the federal authorities put a stop to illegal mining and started removing residents. Only one clinical death had been recorded over the past three weeks, he said, with the other deaths having occurred in April when cases peaked.

Magdalene Sim, spokeswoman for the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, which is leading efforts to clean up the villages, said time “is of the essence”. The clean-up “has to be done now before the rainy season begins in July and spreads the lead around”.

The Blacksmith Institute was providing technical assistance and resources to remove the residual toxic lead in homes, she said, to ensure that no more children died.

Nigerian authorities have asked for assistance from various international health agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to help contain the outbreak.

Many victims are thought to have died after coming into contact with soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead.

According to Dr Olaokun Soyinka, a WHO health information officer in Lagos, the “extract process led to lead being washed out and getting into the food chain through the soil and drinking water. So we have to make sure that all illegal mining stops and people know where to get clean drinking water from.”

Despite the efforts of international agencies and federal authorities, the current situation was unprecedented, according to some experts, meaning the clean-up task would be far from straightforward.

“Blacksmith has done pollution clean-up around the world but the rate and scale of this tragedy is something we have not seen before,” Ms Sim said.

“To give one example, in 2008 the organisation was asked to do an emergency clean-up after 18 children died of lead poisoning in Senegal, but that pales in comparison to what’s going on now in Nigeria.”

Although extremely poor, Zamfara is thought to be rich in minerals including gold, copper, and iron ore. President Goodluck Jonathan recently inaugurated a mineral-processing plant, and the state is keen to attract investment.

Local officials have been criticised for their slowness in responding to the problem, with one telling journalists just two weeks ago that there was no lead poisoning problem in the state.