Food contamination as a pathway for lead exposure in children during the 2010–2013 lead poisoning epidemic in Zamfara, Nigeria

Simba Tirima , Casey Bartrem , Ian von Lindern , Margrit von Braun , Douglas Lind , Shehu Mohamed Anka , Aishat Abdullahi


Received December 03, 2016,Revised , Accepted September 13, 2017, Available online September 23, 2017

Volume 30,2018,Pages 260-272

In 2010, an estimated 400 to 500 children died of acute lead poisoning associated with artisanal gold mining in Zamfara, Nigeria. Processing of gold ores containing up to 10% lead within residential compounds put residents, especially children, at the highest risk. Principal routes of exposure were incidental ingestion and inhalation of contaminated soil and dusts. Several Nigerian and international health organizations collaborated to reduce lead exposures through environmental remediation and medical treatment. The contribution of contaminated food to total lead exposure was assessed during the environmental health response. Objectives of this investigation were to assess the influence of cultural/dietary habits on lead exposure pathways and estimate the contribution of contaminated food to children's blood lead levels (BLLs). A survey of village dietary practices and staple food lead content was conducted to determine dietary composition, caloric intakes, and lead intake. Potential blood lead increments were estimated using bio-kinetic modeling techniques. Most dietary lead exposure was associated with contamination of staple cereal grains and legumes during post-harvest processing and preparation in contaminated homes. Average post-harvest and processed cereal grain lead levels were 0.32 mg/kg and 0.85 mg/kg dry weight, respectively. Age-specific food lead intake ranged from 7 to 78 μg/day. Lead ingestion and absorption were likely aggravated by the dusty environment, fasting between meals, and nutritional deficiencies. Contamination of staple cereal grains by highly bioavailable pulverized ores could account for as much as 11%–34% of children's BLLs during the epidemic, and were a continuing source after residential soil remediation until stored grain inventories were exhausted.

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