Lead poisoning damages the nervous system and causes brain and blood disorders.
Its treatment is time-consuming and expensive as it involves undergoing long-term therapy with chelating agents, which remove heavy metals from the body.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which has been assisting the Government in managing the situation, called for Nigerian authorities to increase their commitment to combat lead poisoning by strengthening its capacity to diagnose, treat and manage it, as well as ensuring that all areas have been de-contaminated.
In a news release, WHO warned that lead poisoning cannot be successfully eliminated without significant changes to mining practices, including the relocation of ore processing activities and storage of ore materials away from villages.
Other necessary measures recommended by WHO include the adoption of processing methods that produce less dust, and hygiene measures such as removing contaminated clothes and washing before returning home.
Treatment also involves persuading people to adopt new practices and behaviours, something which requires an ongoing effort from authorities to continuously raise awareness and make sure the population follows preventive measures.
According to WHO, children in seven villages in Zamfara state require chelation therapy. This is in addition to the residents of seven other villages who have already received treatment. In these villages the combined effects of removing children from lead exposure and providing chelation therapy caused the child mortality rate to drop from 43 per cent to 1 per cent in one year.
**Urgent Action Needed**
Since the problem was discovered last year, $1.9 million has been provided by the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which have been used to provide treatment, train doctors, provide quick diagnoses, and raise awareness about the hazards of lead.
On January this year, the UN reported that over 18,000 people have been affected and 200 children have reportedly died as a result of lead poisoning in Nigeria.
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.
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.
**Soil, Highly Polluted**
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 UNICEF supporting local authorities and the Nigerian Ministry of Health.
**Source:** [www.un.org](http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40378&Cr=&Cr1=) | **2011** [Human Wrongs Watch](http://human-wrongs-watch.net/)
**Also read:** [Nigeria: Drinking Water Polluted With Benzene At Levels 900 Times Above The Limit](http://human-wrongs-watch.net/2011/08/10/nigeria-drinking-water-polluted-with-benzene-at-levels-900-times-above-the-limit/) | [Nigeria: Shall the African Sleeping Giant Wake Up Now?](http://human-wrongs-watch.net/2011/10/26/3181/)