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Lead Poisoning Rampant Among Nigerian Children Rights Group Says

Children take shelter from the rain in front of a home in Yangalma village, where most of the children suffering from lead poisoning come from. (2010 File)

Thousands of children in northwestern Nigeria are in urgent need of treatment for lead poisoning. New York-based Human Rights Watch says dozens of villages in northwestern Zamfara State remain contaminated, two years after the problems were first discovered. Left untreated, lead poisoning can be fatal.

Officials say 400 children under age five have died as a result of what Human Rights Watch considers to is the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.

Zamfara State has hundreds of small gold mines, many of them worked by children as young as eight. The problem is that the earth containing the gold ore also contains high levels of lead.

Speaking from Lagos, Babatunde Olugboji from Human Rights Watch explained that even children who do not work in mines can be poisoned by parents who do.

"They bring up the rock from the soil, and start pounding it and grinding it. Sometimes the processing is being done in the homes; it is like bringing poison home," Olugboji said. "And the kids will be crawling on the floor, and will be ingesting the poison, some of them will be eating the soil. It has been very catastrophic basically."

The rights group says several things need to change. It says miners need to stop bringing the potentially poisonous rocks home for processing. It says they should do this task at the mine instead and change clothes and wash their hands before heading home.

The group also says more children should be tested for poisoning, and that the contaminated earth should be replaced with new topsoil.

Human Rights Watch visited the area in the past few days and found there has been little progress. Olugboji concedes the local authorities have begun to make an effort, but says the Federal Government in Abuja is not showing enough commitment.

"There is anxiety in the faces of the mothers, sort of folding their arms and thinking 'There is nothing we can do, we are waiting for our compounds to be cleaned,' " Olugboji said. "We actually saw two compounds that are part of the most contaminated. One of the compounds they lost 10 children, 10 children in this single compound, and yes, children are still crawling all over the place."

The rights group says 1,500 children have been treated in the area. But if villagers are still returning to homes and communities where there continues to be lead in the soil and the atmosphere, they are far from out of danger.