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Lead clean-up in Nigerian village is life-or-death race against time

By Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Nigeria tackles lead poisoning
  • Outbreak of lead poisoning has killed 163 in remote northern Nigerian state
  • Many local men are gold miners, they bring home ore for wives and children to crush
  • Ore contains extremely high levels of lead
  • Villagers trying to clear contaminated topsoil and bury it
  • Clean-up is a race against time, as seasonal rains are coming

Dareta, Nigeria (CNN) -- In remote northern Nigeria, it is now a race against time to prevent a catastrophe in the world's worst-ever recorded outbreak of lead poisoning.

Officially 163 people have already died in Zamfara state -- 111 of them children. But no one knows the true figures.

"You read about it in the literature but several hundred children have died here as a result of what happened here," says Ian von Lindern from the environmental engineering organization the Blacksmith Institute, which is heading the clean-up operation in the region.

Children began to die in January, but only now in June has the clean-up operation begun in the mud-hut village of Dareta.

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Video: Lead poisoning outbreak

Using the only tools available -- crude metal hoes normally used for farming -- local villagers are trying to clear the contaminated topsoil from the worst-affected housing compounds. Dug up, the soil is put into plastic bags and buried far from the village.

Young children look on as their friends and family wear unfamiliar white protective suits and face masks. And they inhale more of the stirred-up dust.

The U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute -- a global leader in pollution clean-up operations -- has found disturbingly high levels of lead across the village.

"The fact that this is 10,000 parts per million -- which is 1 percent lead -- that's very high," explains Casey Bartram of the Blacksmith Institute.

In the U.S., the standard for residential-area soils is normally 400 parts per million.

"Because lead particles are so small, the levels so high, and because in this environment the kids are always in contact with the soil -- it's extremely dangerous for them to be exposed to levels like these," says Bartram.

The Blacksmith Institute currently is trying to help clean up a toxic lead site in Senegal where, in the last few years, 18 people died. Until now, it was the worst case of lead poisoning anyone had seen.

"We were asked if we'd come over and look at this [site] so we only planned on a four-day visit -- but it's so bad we just have to stay and do what we can," says von Lindern.

Many of the men in the region are gold miners. They bring the metal ore mined from the local mines back to be crushed by their wives and children in their homes.

Unbeknownst to them, the gold ore contains extremely high levels of lead.

The ore processing has since been moved out of most of the villages and, in theory, the lead could be cleared away.

"I will instruct all the people to excavate their houses," the local chief, Mohammed Bello, declares.

"But it will be difficult to enforce because of poverty."

There are also many other problems. Just getting to Dareta village takes several hours' drive -- a journey that will soon be made almost impossible with the oncoming rains.

And with the rains coming, the young men working to clear away the contaminated earth are anxious to get to their farms.

Simba Terima of the Blacksmith Institute is helping train them in safely removing the contaminated soil.

"This is a local problem, this is not an international problem," he says. "So if they can own it, it'll be very good because long, long after we're gone they will be here."

It is hoped that Dareta village will be cleared in 26 days, but manpower is still lacking.

The local government, apart from handing out red election hats for an upcoming vote, is almost nowhere to be seen.

"I tell you that the problem has now been contained and we are now on remediation," explains Abubakar Maru, the local environmental commissioner.

"I'm sure these measures are good enough."

The government claims there have been no more fatalities since it first identified the problem as lead poisoning.

However, Dareta is only one of seven villages identified with extremely toxic levels of lead -- and the only village in the region receiving an on-going clean-up operation. From reports, some of the other villages are not being monitored properly. And there has been no thorough report on whether there are more villages suffering from the same toxic levels of lead.

"We hope to do just this village before the rainy season, but by mid-July there'll be so much rain we won't be able to, and we'll have to wait until October," says von Lindern.

"The kids will still be exposed."

On Sunday, the village cleared its first compound. For now, villagers are just taking it one home at a time.