Last week, UN experts sounded the alarm bell over the toxic lead pollution from a former lead and zinc mine in Zambia, calling upon the Zambian government to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of local populations. The UN experts’ appeal came shortly before the Zambian general election on 12 August — and should prompt candidates to commit to a comprehensive clean-up of the contamination, if they haven’t done so already.
Residents in Kabwe, Central Zambia, have been exposed to highly toxic lead for decades. The mine was originally owned by British colonial companies, including Anglo American, and later nationalised. In 1994, the mine closed, but the toxic waste that remained was never cleaned up. Anglo American is currently facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of affected children and women of childbearing age in Kabwe.
The matter is urgent and the problem grows every day. The former mine area contains more than three-million tonnes of waste from the mining process and about 2.5-million tonnes of waste from the smelter. Lead dust from these waste dumps, which are not covered, continues to blow over to nearby residential areas and threaten community health. A baby born today in Kabwe risks severe illness due to the extremely high levels of toxic lead deposited decades ago. An estimated 200 000 Kabwe residents are exposed to lead-polluted homes backyards, schools, play areas and roads.
Elevated blood-lead levels
A 2018 medical study estimated that more than 95% of children in townships exposed to lead from the Kabwe mine have elevated blood-lead levels, and about half the children in the townships have such high blood-lead levels that they urgently require medical intervention. Adults are also affected, with particular risks during pregnancy.
Lead is a heavy metal so toxic that there is no known safe level of lead exposure, according to the World Health Organisation. It can cause hearing loss, vision loss, high blood pressure, IQ deficits, behavioural problems and even coma, convulsions, and death. Children are especially at risk because their bodies are still developing and absorb proportionally more lead than adults.
The Zambian government has taken some good steps to tackle the problem. In particular, it has begun testing and treating children affected by lead in Kabwe with a loan from the World Bank. It has also started to remediate the problem in homes.
Source of the contamination
But its efforts do not address the source of the contamination — the mine waste. After the mine’s closure, the government licensed further mining and reprocessing activities, rather than cleaning up the waste piles. A South African company, Jubilee Metals, now plans to reprocess the waste for lead and other metals, which carries additional health risks. The UN experts are concerned about this and have approached Jubilee Metals and the South African government as well, asking how the company is intending to prevent further harm to local populations.
If the waste is not cleaned up, any progress made could be quickly reversed, as it will continue to spread its toxic dust across the area. Children who have been treated will be poisoned again as they return to polluted homes and schools.
The government should embark on a comprehensive remediation and land restoration programme at Kabwe mine, waste piles and surroundings. Foreign governments and companies should support this effort financially and technically.The people who have suffered harm from the toxic lead pollution in Kabwe have a right to a remedy. The next government of Zambia — which will be elected imminently — should put in place healthcare for all, reparations and a comprehensive clean-up programme to end this nightmare.