Of those 4000 cases, over 400 children have died after being contaminated by acute lead poisoning in the state of Zamfara.
The international health NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) learned of the crisis in 2010, and the head of MSF Nigeria, Ivan Gayton, has called it “one of the worst, if not the worst, lead-poisoning crisis ever.”
As aid organizations brought the crisis to the attention of the federal government, in November 2011 it committed US$5.4 million to help the poisoned children.
However, MSF and other groups are stating that none of this money has been released, and no explanation has been given for the delay.
This delay has left thousands of children in Zamfara untreated, excluding them from chelation [removing lead from the body] while they are continuously re-poisoned.
The lead poisoning affecting the children comes from artisanal mining practices in the Zamfara region, when independent miners use crude hand tools to extract gold from crushed ore in their villages.
The toxic dust contaminates soil, water, food and homes. Children under five years of age are especially vulnerable to poisoning, as their bodies weigh much less and absorb far greater amounts of lead from the environment than adults.
Lead-contaminated dust is also more likely to be ingested by children as they crawl on the ground and put dusty hands in their mouths, while their vital organs and cognitive abilities are still forming.
Zamfara’s lead crisis came to a head in 2010, when skyrocketing international gold prices prompted scores of residents to turn to artisanal mining in an attempt to end their lives of poverty.
High levels of lead in the body can cause problems with the brain, kidneys and bone marrow. Symptoms of high lead levels can include belly pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss and anemia (a low red blood cell count).
Lower levels of lead in the body can also cause problems, such as trouble paying attention, behavior problems, learning difficulties and a fall in the IQ of young children.