YARGALMA, Nigeria | Mound after tiny mound of red clay earth dots the cemetery on the outskirts of this impoverished Nigerian village where grieving parents come to pray.
Children began falling ill months ago here and in a half-dozen other villages in this remote northern region on the cusp of the Sahara Desert. Some could not stand, some went blind or deaf.
Then they began dying.
Doctors suspected malaria. But they were wrong — after 160 died and hundreds more were ailing, blood tests revealed the real killer: lead unearthed by villagers digging for gold.
In a tragedy described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “unprecedented” in its work with lead poisoning worldwide, most victims are children.
Many had played in homes or village common areas contaminated by lead. The level of exposure was so high that most blood samples were off the scale on lead-screening machines.
The existence of gold deposits in this area along the Niger border had been long known. But it wasn’t until gold prices soared in recent years that villagers began heading into the bush to search for it.
Soon the poor herdsmen in rural Zamfara state could sell gold for more than $23 a gram — a huge sum in a country where most people live on less than $1 a day.
“There is no other business one can do to make that much money,” said Haruna Musa, a 70-year-old elder in Yargalma.
The process of extracting gold from the ore is simple and dates back a millennium. Villagers bash the rocks with hammers, then grind the smaller pieces into a powder, these days with the help of a generator-powered machine. The powder is added to a slurry mixture of water and mercury — itself a dangerous substance — to draw the gold particles together.
However, this time the ore brought back to the villages in Zamfara contained extremely high levels of lead. Fathers carried the precious rocks home to store inside their mud-walled compounds, sometimes leaving them on sleeping mats.
The work of breaking the rocks often fell to their wives. The women of the Muslim villages would chisel the rocks into smaller pieces as their young children played nearby. Dust and flakes accumulated in the villages’ communal areas, which children run through.
An international team of doctors and hazardous-waste experts arrived in Zamfara in mid-May and is racing to treat victims and remove the poison from villages, pastureland and creek beds.
“This is as bad as it gets,” said Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute, a U.S. group leading cleanup efforts.
On Thursday, crews of local farmers wearing white coveralls, surgical masks and latex gloves used picks and shovels to dig up the floors of a contaminated mud-walled compound in the village of Dareta. Ore- processing sites lay abandoned, the equipment sitting idle as rainwater washed contaminated soil into a pond.