MAC: Mines and Communities

Lead poisoning concern in mining town in Zambia

Published by MAC on 2005-03-08

Zambia: Lead poisoning concern in mining town

Alternet - Source: IRIN

08 March 2005

Lusaka - A Zambian community faces serious health risks as a result of lead and zinc mining activities in their area.

In its heyday, Kabwe boasted one of the largest and richest lead mines in Africa, but it had few pollution controls. Since the closure of the mine in 1994, the town in Central province, about 150 km north of the capital, Lusaka, has endured not only economic hardship but also the risk of lead poisoning.

Kabwe's vegetation, soil and waterways are heavily contaminated with the highly poisonous metal. Environmentalists say the most polluted area is the sprawling Katondo township, which has sprouted in the shadow of the defunct mine.

Katondo lies beside a canal that was used to carry toxic waste from the open pit mine, where health workers say up to 90,000 children could be at risk of lead poisoning.

A parliamentary committee on energy, environment and tourism has confirmed these findings, noting that "clinical tests since the 1970s, have shown that children in Kabwe ... are exposed to lead poisoning".

Sustained pressure from international and local environmental groups has moved the government and Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Investment Holdings (ZCCM-IH), with assistance from the World Bank, to implement mitigation programmes.

Children are at greater risk, as exposure to lead before or after birth could affect their growth and development, leading to deficiencies in height, weight and intelligence. In adults, lead poisoning can result in damage to the central nervous system and severely weaken fingers, joints, wrists and ankles.

The toxic metal also increases blood pressure, causes anaemia and can damage kidneys in both children and adults, said Peter Sinkamba, head of the environmental lobby group, Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE).

According to studies by the United States Centers for Disease Control, blood lead levels in children should not exceed 15 microgrammes per decilitre. In Kabwe's children, lead concentrations of up to 300 microgrammes per decilitre have been recorded, with average blood levels ranging between 60 and 120 microgrammes per decilitre.

A survey in former mine townships in Kabwe revealed that children suffered ailments commonly thought to be a 'local strain' of malaria, but environmentalists and health workers said they were caused by lead poisoning. Children playing in the soil and youths scavenging the mines for scrap metal were most at risk.

A canal that used to carry waste from the once active smelter still ran from the mine to the centre of town, but there was no restriction to the waterway, and children sometimes bathed in it.

The ZCCM-IH, the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ), and the Kabwe Municipal Council have launched a mitigation programme, but community awareness remains low.

An assessment of lead contamination in Kabwe is being conducted under the Copperbelt Environmental Programme (CEP), an initiative funded by the World Bank to address environmental liabilities and obligations associated with mining.

The two-phased CEP aims at assisting ZCCM-IH and the government to implement a set of environmental and social remedial measures, and strengthen the capacity of concerned government agencies, including the ECZ, in enforcing environmental regulations applicable to the mining sector.

"The assessments on lead contamination in Kabwe are being carried out by ZCCM-IH - the aim of the assessments is to understand the extent of the contamination," said Justin Mukosa, the senior environmental communications officer at ECZ.

Kabwe's lead pollution has assumed international dimensions, with several lobby groups taking a keen interest in the matter.

"Every time children play in the dusty streets of the small Zambian town of Kabwe, they are putting their health at risk," said the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental watchdog.

Kay-Valentine Musakanya, of the Kabwe Environmental Rehabilitation Foundation (KERF), said half the children of Katondo had tested positive for varying degrees of lead poisoning.

Although environmentalists and ZCCM-IH still disagree over the extent of the problem, no one has denied that a problem exists, and a World Bank environmental damage control initiative has set aside US $15 million for programmes in Kabwe.

In the long term it is likely that Kabwe's mine dumps will have to be covered by vegetation or capped with concrete to prevent pollutants being blown across the town, and medical staff will need to be properly trained and equipped to deal with lead pollution.

In September 2003, ZCCM-IH asked the 2,000 Katondo residents to vacate their canalside homes, so the company could dredge the clogged waterway to prevent heavy rains from carrying toxic waste into people's gardens and yards, but residents resisted because they did not have alternative shelter.

Precautionary measures are now being taken to educate the population about the problem, and provide basic advice on how to avoid being poisoned. However, entire neighbourhoods may need to relocate.

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