Nigeria: The issue of lead poisining in Africa

By Correspondent Chinyere Ogbonna – It is obvious that most Nigerians and indeed Africans are not aware of this illness referred to as Lead Poisoning.

Lead Poisoning is a medical condition also known as saturnism, plumbism or painters colic.  It is caused by a toxic mineral known as lead.

Lead is a metal that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. People have spread it through the environment in many ways. Lead used to be in paint and gasoline. Lead can still be found in contaminated soil, household dust, drinking water, lead-glazed pottery and some metal jewelry.

Breathing air, drinking water, eating food or swallowing or touching dirt that contains lead can cause many health problems. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure and cause infertility, nerve disorders and muscle and joint pain. It can also make you irritable and affect your ability to concentrate and remember things.


In Nigeria the problem came to the fore last year when it was widely reported by  the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA)  that between March and October that no fewer than five hundred and sixty people died in the Zamfara state, northern part of the country linked to Lead poisoning with illegal gold mining.

The victims were said to be obtaining their water from sources believed to contain high level of this toxic mineral.

What exactly is Lead and what are its chemical components? A chemical Engineer, and Head of Department of Chemical Engineering, Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, Dr.  Abiodun Adeleke says Lead is categorized as one of the heavy metals found in the soil, poisonous and hazardous to health.

Is exposure to Lead only restricted to mining areas? Experts say that people could also get exposed to Lead Poisoning outside mining areas. Again Dr. Adeleke explains that people can also get Lead into the system from water, agricultural produce and e-wastes that contain heavy metals such as computers of which lead is one of them.

A medical practitioner, Dr. Ononanne Okechukwu says exposure to lead can also occur when there is accidental ingestion of old lead paint around the line and also most toys now have lead paint there could also be accidental ingestion of fluid from car batteries, some pipes that run our water along the line mix with the water we drink thereby causing Lead Poisoning

Lead Poisoning is said to occur from repeated or prolonged exposure to small amounts of Lead. In this case, there may not be obvious symptoms but can still cause serious health hazards overtime.

What are the symptoms of Lead Poisoning? Again Dr Ononanne says the symptoms include what he called anarazier, nausea and vomiting, constipation, the person may have difficulty empting his/her bowel regularly, there could be severe abdominal pain and anemia –reduction in the blood level, etc.

Lead is said to be more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children who are still developing nerves and brain. The younger the child, the more harmful Lead can be. According to experts unborn children are most vulnerable to this medical condition? Again Dr. Ononanne explains that

What are the health implications of prolonged exposure of children and pregnant women to lead? affects the bones, It could lead to impairments of consciousness, when the lead has already diffused into the brain, thereby affecting the cerebral consciousness of the person, It could lead to seizure, the person seem to have attacks that look like epilepsy etc.

According to experts, “The immature body system of children exposed to contaminated soils and gold processing tools tends to rapidly absorb associated lead and in the process poisoning, then leading to convulsion, paralysis and even death.

Lead Poisoning affects children more because they are still developing the body organs. The may experience deformities in bones and for pregnant women who are prone to anemia because of the periodic loss of blood through menstrual flow.

A U.N. report earlier this year, based on a joint assessment mission, said high levels of lead pollution were found in soil and mercury levels in the air were nearly 500 times the acceptable limit in some villages in Zamfara state in the northern part of Nigeria.

The report said many children under five and adults tested in the affected areas had “extremely high levels of lead in their blood” while lead limits in drinking water tested exceeded U.N. standards, in at least one case by 10 times.

Regulatory agencies such as the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, and the National Food and Drugs Administration, NAFDAC, should initiate measures to control the amount of lead used in the production paints, ceramics toys and plumbing materials.

They should also ensure that all importation of items such as toys and cosmetics is regulated and recall all children’s items that’s lead content exceed the world approved level.