LAGOS, Nigeria—More than 160 poor villagers from Nigeria’s north died from lead poisoning while trying to leach gold from rock deposits, sparking evacuations as health officials try to come to grips with a crisis six months in the making, authorities said Friday.
Dr. Henry Akpan, Nigeria’s chief epidemiologist, told The Associated Press that 100 of the dead were children from five villages in Zamfara state, a near-desert region of the Sahel that has seen a growing food crisis over recent weeks. Akpan said the children either played near the leaching process or took part in it, swallowing the lead by putting their hands in their mouths or breathing it in.
Akpan said federal and state authorities, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were taking part in the quarantine and clean-up efforts in the state. About 300 others in the area have fallen ill from lead poisoning since the illegal mining began in January, he said.
Akpan said authorities also had begun evacuating people from the contaminated areas.
“What is happening now is the extent of the growth of illegal mining,” the doctor said. “It is what they do in the processes that causes the lead poisoning.”
Akpan did not say why it took Nigerian authorities six months to recognize the illness.
Officials with the CDC in Atlanta did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday.
If not detected early, high levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, result in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults. In severe cases, it can cause lead to seizures, comas and death.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 150 million residents, is one of the U.S.’ top crude oil suppliers. But the West African nation also once supplied copper and other minerals to the world before oil took over as the top selling commodity