400 children killed by lead poisoning - UN

2010-10-05 20:00

Geneva - Some 400 children in northern Nigeria have died since March from lead poisoning linked to illegal gold mining by residents, and thousands more remain at risk, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The Dutch arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) reported the new toll, up from 160 deaths last June, and is treating a further 500 children in its four clinics, a UN spokesperson said. Most victims are under the age of 5.

"The lead pollution and intoxication crisis in Zamfara state is far from over," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"An urgent and co-ordinated response is needed. Thousands (of people) are at risk," she told a news briefing.

A UN assessment mission, acting at the request of the Nigerian government, found that water supplies in four out of five villages visited were contaminated by high levels of lead.

Concentrations of mercury in the air were also high, according to their preliminary results issued after a two-week investigation in Abare, Bagega, Dareta, Kersa and Sunke.

"The exposure to lead is thought to be caused by processing of lead containing gold ore in rural areas. Ore mined nearby is brought into the villages for further processing, which is often done by women and young children," a UN summary said.

The affected villages are largely made of mud-brick buildings and lie in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers.

Too much lead can cause irreparable damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. Lead is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women who pass the metal through the placenta to foetuses or to babies via breastfeeding.

Many families thought that their children suffering convulsions had malaria, but blood samples taken by MSF revealed the lead poisoning, according to the UN spokesperson.

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