Lead poisoning linked with illegal gold mining has killed a further 400 children in northern Nigeria since November, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said on Monday.
The latest figures suggest the death toll from the crisis in the northern state of Zamfara is rising after the United Nations said lead poisoning in the region had killed at least 400 children between March and October last year.
El Shafii Muhammad Ahmad, project director for Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF), said reports of 400 deaths "is an under-estimation because many lead-related deaths are never reported and in many cases, these communities attribute them to other factors or deny them altogether."
He said local communities mainly concealed or denied the fatalities and illnesses from lead poisoning for fear that authorities will ban their mining activities, he added.
The environmental implications of illegal mining are quite diverse. The first is that it destroys farmland and distorts the livelihood of agrarian communities. The trenches dug for these mining activities are abandoned after the mining is over. They therefore become death traps and easy entry points for devastating gully erosions.
As was in the case of the communities in Zamfara State, many of these mines are contaminated with impurities. In this case, gold ash was intermingled with deposits of lead. In a few cases, some of the impurities are even radioactive in nature. Impoverished farmers dig up rocks by hand in open mines, but the ore being unearthed around their villages contains high concentrations of lead, contaminating the air, soil and water.
The intoxications were caused by the illegal extraction of ore by villagers, who would transport crushed rock home from the mines to extract the gold.
The soil containing lead deposits would then be haphazardly disposed of, exposing children to inhalation or ingestion.
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.
"The immature body system of children exposed to contaminated soils and gold processing tools tends to rapidly absorb associated lead and in the process poisoning then leading to convulsion, paralysis and even death," NEMA Director General, Muhammad Sani-Sidi, said in a statement on Monday.
A U.N. report earlier this year, based on a joint assessment mission, said high levels of lead pollution were found in soil and mercury levels in the air were nearly 500 times the acceptable limit in some villages in Zamfara.
The report said many children under five and adults tested in the affected areas had "extremely high levels of lead in their blood" while lead limits in drinking water tested exceeded U.N. standards, in at least one case by 10 times.
Reuters,"Lead poisoning kills 400 more Nigerian children", accessed March 7, 2011