U.N. urges Nigeria clean-up after mass lead poisoning

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. urged Nigeria on Friday to clean up polluted villages and limit ore-processing after hundreds of children died last year from mass acute lead poisoning linked to illegal mining for gold by residents.

High levels of lead pollution were found in soil and mercury levels in the air were nearly 500 times the acceptable limit, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. Environment Program.

“Measures should be prevent further ore processing activities from taking place at sensitive sites - such as water sources from which humans and livestock drink,” its report said.

It urged authorities to clean up polluted villages as soon as possible so affected children could return for recovery and follow-up care.

The report, based on a joint assessment mission, said many children under five and adults tested in the affected areas of the northwestern state of Zamfara had “extremely high levels of lead in their blood.”

Some 18,000 people were affected and at least 200 children died as a result of contamination revealed last March.

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Excessive lead can cause irreparable damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. It is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women who pass the metal on to fetuses or to babies via breastfeeding.

Lead limits in drinking water tested in affected villages exceeded U.N. standards and in at least one case by 10 times. Water in ponds was often highly contaminated, the U.N. said.

“No boreholes were found to have been contaminated, indicating that lead pollution most likely remains confined to areas where processing has taken place and has not yet spread throughout the groundwater,” it said.

Priority should be given to cleaning contaminated soil, it said, noting that young children often put dirt in their mouths.

It also expressed concern over high lead and mercury levels detected in a number of home compounds in the cleaned up village of Dareta.

“(This) could be an indication that processing activities have been continued by some individuals,” it said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jason Neely