|A Nigerian girl stands near abandoned gold-processing plant in Yargalm, Nigeria: Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images|
An unprecedented outbreak of lead poisoning linked to a gold rush has killed at least 200 children in northern Nigeria this year, with a further 18,000 people affected.
Announcing the figures, the UN said it had sent an emergency team to assess the full impact of the "acute massive lead poisoning" in Zamfara state, where seven villages have so far been confirmed as contaminated.
In all cases, villagers had been grinding ore by hand to search for gold when they unwittingly freed lead particles also contained in the rock.
The quantities of lead released into the dust and soil were large enough to kill children – most of the deaths were among under-fives – while also causing deafness, blindness, brain damage and muscular problems.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted a preliminary study into the deaths, said that the scale of the problem was "unprecedented in CDC's work with lead poisoning worldwide".
More people have died in the affected villages this year than in community-wide disasters anywhere in the world over the past 40 years, according to TerraGraphics, an environmental engineering firm involved in the clean-up operation.
"This is an incredibly serious and worrying situation," said Lauren Cooney, emergency manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been helping with the response. In one village 30% of children under five had died this year due to poisoning, the charity said.
"While we still don't know the full extent of the problem, we expect that there are going to be medium- and long-term health effects for people in these villages," said Cooney.
(Click here to read the full story on the UK Guardian website.)