Lead Poisoning in Nigeria

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The ore was ground into an easily-consumable powder. Photo courtesy of Antonio Neri.
The ore was ground into an easily-consumable powder. Photo courtesy of Antonio Neri.


Rows of tiny graves peppered the Nigerian landscape. In May 2010, NCEH/ATSDR assembled a team to investigate children’s deaths in at least six villages in Zamfara, Nigeria.

Investigation Results

The team helped quickly identify the source of contamination—the processing of gold ore rich in lead. The previous November, unidentified persons had installed an estimated 200 flour grinding machines in the villages. Mined ore was being
  • broken up,
  • ground in the machines,
  • sluiced,
  • mixed by hand with mercury, and then
  • dried.

The result? An easily absorbed and highly toxic lead powder. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Elevated blood lead levels can result in brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth, and behavior and learning problems. In the US, lead poisoning claims a life about once every couple of years. But in Nigeria, these cases of lead poisoning created a tragedy comparable to the worst infectious disease outbreaks.

Helping Save Lives

To control the sickness and help prevent more deaths, villagers with lead poisoning received medicine to remove the lead from their bodies (chelation therapy). The team worked with environmental specialists to clean up the lead contamination and created health messages for the villagers that were delivered through radio, street performers, and health education.

Learn More

Though the severity, high lead levels contamination and type of widespread lead poisoning emergency that occurred in Nigeria would be considered extremely rare in the U.S., at least 4 million households in this country have children living in them that are being exposed to lead. Learn more about ways to protect your child from lead.
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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015