Earlier this year, cases of lead poisoning in children and adults were confirmed in five villages in Zamfara state, northwestern Nigeria. Investigations conducted in April and May by Nigerian authorities and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams reported 163 deaths suspected of being linked to lead poisoning. This estimate was based on information provided by villagers and health workers, as well as deaths recorded in MSF-supported health facilities. Since May however, two more villages with high lead levels have been identified, bringing the total to seven known contaminated villages. “This increase shows that the problem is probably more widespread than we originally believed, and that the scope must continue to be investigated. The situation demands coordination by Nigerian authorities and international organizations to urgently address this unprecedented situation,” explains Gautam Chatterjee, MSF country manager in Nigeria. With the support of local authorities, MSF has since May been providing a life-saving treatment called chelation to young children and breast-feeding mothers, people who are the most vulnerable to lead toxicity. MSF will continue to provide emergency treatment to prevent deaths and mitigate serious medical consequences. However, the treatment provided is futile if children return to contaminated sites and continue to be exposed to high lead levels as they may suffer again the consequences of lead poisoning. Villages known to be contaminated must urgently be cleaned up so exposure to lead is prevented for children and adults.

© John Heeneman/MSF

A MSF staff takes blood from a child in Zamfara state, to perform a blood test for lead. Many children have died in Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria in the last 6 months, due to local gold mining activities.  Mining activities are brought into the villages compounds, where children play in soil and breath dust contaminated with very high levels of lead released from the crushing of ore.

Although two of the seven identified villages have been cleaned up by an environmental clean-up organization, much more needs to be done. The local population must also receive on-going health education talks about the risks associated with exposure to lead poisoning.

Source of lead poisoning

The lead poisoning is a consequence of villagers practising small-scale gold extraction from lead-containing ore. The processing of the ore involves crushing and drying it, often inside the homes of villagers, resulting in soil contamination and an increased risk of lead poisoning.

MSF medical treatment

Almost 400 children and more than 100 breast-feeding mothers have been treated with chelation therapy in the two medical centres managed by MSF. The treatment facilities are located in Anka town and in Bukkuyum town (Zamfara State). The treatment is only effective if patients do not return to contaminated sites, otherwise they are at risk of recontamination.

Clean up

Clean up or remediation of the villages – the decontamination process involving the removal of affected soil – is a lengthy and costly process and only two of seven villages have been remediated thus far. Remediation is currently being managed by an environmental clean-up agency Terragraphics, funded in part by the Blacksmith Foundation.

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