A United Nations team has finished collecting dozens of soil and water samples in a region of northern Nigeria where acute lead poisoning due to backyard gold digging has sickened hundreds of children this year, leading to excess deaths.
The five-member team from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will spend the next two days working in its mobile laboratory to analyze the samples and present preliminary findings to local and federal government officials by Monday.
A spike in lead-related illnesses and deaths emerged at the start of this year in two districts of Zamfara state. Investigations revealed that the cause was the attempts of many locals to extract gold from lead-contaminated soils in and around their houses and compounds. The soil, well water, and pond water samples should help determine the level of lead pollution in five villages.
At one former mine processing site in the village of Bagega, with some 8,000 inhabitants, air mercury levels of 5,000 nanogrammes per cubic metre were registered, a hundred times the maximum recommended level of 50. Mercury, which is used in the gold extraction processes, affects the nervous and digestive systems when inhaled.
A final report will be available by mid- to late-October, feeding into a larger process to address this crisis involving a variety of actors, including state and federal authorities, the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who have launched a major effort to remove lead- and mercury-contaminated soil and water from the villages.