Geneva/New York/Nairobi, 7 January 2011 - The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have released a report calling on Nigerian authorities to prevent further lead poisoning in northern Nigeria. The report recommends taking greater measures to limit ore processing activities at sensitive sites, such as water sources from which humans and livestock drink.
The report also calls for cleaning up polluted 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 2010 in the areas of Bukkuyum and Anka in Zamfara State in northern Nigeria. Investigations by the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit revealed that the cause is acute lead poisoning from the processing of lead-rich ore for gold extraction taking place inside houses and compounds. Over 18,000 people have been affected and 200 have children reportedly died as a result of the poisoning.
The new report is based on the findings of a sampling and analysis mission requested by the Federal Ministry of Health of Nigeria in September 2010. The mission was supported by four technical experts and used equipment from the Environmental Assessment Module (EAM), a mobile laboratory designed and assembled specifically for international deployment provided by the Government of the Netherlands.
The mission focused on determining quantities of lead in ground and surface water, building on previous investigations in Zamfara State. High levels of lead pollution were found in the soil, and mercury levels in air were determined to be nearly 500 times the acceptable limit.
Water: The mission found that drinking water from wells did not meet World Health Organisation (WHO) and Nigerian standards (10 micrograms per litre) for lead limits, and in at least one case exceeded this limit more than tenfold. Water in ponds was often highly contaminated. However, 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.
Soil: In the four villages visited that have not undergone clean-up, the soil was often highly polluted with lead. Since young children readily ingest soil as part of normal hand-to-mouth behaviour, such high concentrations expose children to potentially harmful amounts of lead.
Air: The levels of mercury in air were found to be nearly 500 times the maximum exposure for non-industrial workers in the Netherlands.
The response will involve medical care for the most severe cases of lead poisoning among children under five, and decontamination of houses and villages. Both activities are needed because medical treatment alone is ineffective if children return home to contaminated homes and are re-exposed to lead. Many children over 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), together with WHO and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Nigeria, supporting local authorities and the Nigerian Ministry of Health.
The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has allocated US$2 million in response to the crisis.
Notes to Editors
The report is available online through the OCHA website:
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