Entire African town poisoned by lead Associated Press First, it took the animals. Goats fell silent and refused to stand up. Scores of chickens died and street dogs disappeared. Then it took the children. Toddlers stopped talking and their legs gave out. Women birthed stillborns. Infants withered and died. Some said the houses were cursed. Others said the families were cursed. The mysterious illness killed 18 children in this town on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal's capital, before anyone in the outside world noticed. When they did - when the TV news aired parents' angry pleas for an investigation, when the doctors ordered more tests, when the West sent health experts - they did not find malaria, or polio, or AIDS, or any of the diseases that kill the poor of Africa. They found lead. The dirt here is laced with lead left over from years of extracting it from old car batteries. So, when the price of lead quadrupled over five years, residents started digging up the earth to get at it. The World Health Organization says the area is still severely contaminated, 10 months after a government cleanup. The tragedy of Thiaroye Sur Mer gives a glimpse at how the globalization of a modern tool - the car battery - can wreak havoc in the developing world. As the demand for cars has increased, especially in China and India, so has the demand for lead-acid car batteries. About 70 per cent of the lead manufactured worldwide goes into car batteries, which are also used to power TVs and cell phones in some areas. Both the manufacturing and the recycling of these batteries has moved mostly to the Third World. Between 2005 and 2006, four waves of lead poisoning involving batteries were reported in China. And in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, lead smelting left 500 people with chronic illnesses and 25 children with brain damage before the government shut it down three years ago, according to San Francisco-based OK International, which works on environmental standards for battery manufacturing. Thiaroye Sur Mer is a town of 100,000 where yearly rains leave people wading through knee-deep water inside their cement-block houses. A train track bisects the town and daily trains speed through just a few steps from homes. The ocean used to supply a livelihood, but fishing hasn't been good the past few years. Young men have increasingly taken to trying to sneak into Europe aboard large canoes with outboard motors. For years, the town's blacksmiths extracted lead from car batteries and remolded it into weights for fishing nets. It's a dangerous, messy process in which workers crack open the batteries with a hatchet and pull small pieces of lead out of skin-burning acid. The work left the dirt of Thiaroye dense with small lead particles. Then the price of lead climbed, and traders from India came and asked about the dirt. They offered to buy bits of lead by the bag for 60 cents a kilogram, says Coumba Diaw, a middle-aged mother of two. So Diaw dug up the dirt with a shovel and carried bags of it back to her house. There, she sat outside and separated out the lead with a sifter. It took just an hour of sifting to make what she did in a day of selling vegetables at the market. She kept her two daughters nearby as she worked. Women all over the neighbourhood did the same, creating dust clouds of lead. Then the sicknesses started. The deaths came, one after another, over the five months from October 2007 through March 2008. At first, people thought it was malaria or tuberculosis. Doctors at the local health clinic kept seeing the same symptoms with no response to treatment and started running more tests. That's when Demba Diaw's four-year-old daughter died. First she got a bad fever. Then she started vomiting. Diaw, a 31-year-old teacher at an Islamic school, thought it was malaria and took her to the hospital. The next day she was dead. At about the same time, the hospital confirmed lead poisoning. That's when the World Health Organization was called in. The government ran blood tests on relatives of the dead children. Their mothers and siblings were found to have lead levels of 1,000 micrograms per litre. Just 100 micrograms per liter is enough to impair brain development in children.