DARETA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Lead poisoning caused by illegal gold mining has killed 163 Nigerians, most of them children, in remote villages in the past few months, a government official said on Friday.
Dr Henry Akpan, the health ministry’s chief epidemiologist, told Reuters 355 cases in at least six locations in the northern Zamfara state had been reported so far and 111 of the dead were children, many of them under five.
“We discovered unusual cases of abdominal pains with vomiting, nausea and some having convulsions,” Akpan said. “These people were around the area where they were digging for gold. The fatality rate is 46 percent.”
Nigeria has asked for the assistance of international agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New York-based Blacksmith Institute.
The remote location and Muslim restrictions which allow only women into some of the compounds have made the work difficult.
“This is an emergency situation. We are racing against the clock to remove toxic lead from the houses now before the rains come in July and spread the pollutant,” said Richard Fuller, president of Blacksmith Institute, a non-profit organization that works to clean up polluted sites around the world.
The villages affected such as Dareta and Giadanbuzu are in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers.
Akpan said health officials, who first became aware of a problem in March, had found children playing in water close to mining sites when they visited. He said the number of cases had fallen since April after local authorities halted illegal mining and began evacuating residents.
“We have been able to get on top of this. The number of reported illnesses has fallen. We are winning,” he said.
Dareta and Giadanbuzu are little more than collections of mud huts.
Although poor, Zamfara is believed to be rich in minerals including gold, copper, iron ore and manganese. President Goodluck Jonathan recently inaugurated a mineral processing plant and the state is keen to attract investment.
A spokesman for Zamfara state government, contacted by Reuters two days ago, said he had no information on lead poisoning in the state, stating “there is nothing like that.”
Villagers expressed frustration with the government, saying authorities have been slow in responding to the crisis.
Abubakar Garba, a 40-year-old sheep farmer in Giadanbuzu, said four of his six children died from lead poisoning two months ago. The four were all under the age of 10.
“The government of this country does not know where the poor live. They do not want to know what goes on in our villages,” Garba said while fighting back tears.
“If it were their children, it would not have taken them so long to discover these problems.”
Many victims died after coming into contact with tools, soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead.
Too much lead can damage parts of the body including the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. Lead is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women.
Additional reporting by Randy Fabi and Camillus Eboh; editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Dobbie