Abnormally high rates of death and illness among children have been recorded since the beginning of 2010 in northern Nigeria.

Over 18,000 people have been affected and 200 children have reportedly died as a result of the poisoning.

Investigations by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) concluded that the cause was acute lead poisoning from the processing of lead-rich ore for gold extraction.

Soil, air and water were all found to be highly contaminated and above acceptable limits.

Drinking water from wells did not meet WHO and Nigerian standards for lead limits and in once case exceeded this limit more than tenfold. Water in ponds was also highly contaminated. Mercury levels in the air were nearly 500 times the acceptable limit.

The UN urged the Nigerian authorities to remediate polluted villages to allow children to return for recovery and follow-up care. They were also urged to take measures to limit ore processing activities in sensitive areas.

Mercury is harmful to the nervous system and high levels of exposure can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, digestive systems and developing foetuses. Very young children are more sensitive to mercury to adults.

The medical response is being lead by Médecins sans Frontières with the World Health Organisation (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.

Alison Brown

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