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Alba Iulia
Thursday, May 13, 2021

Mining leaves toxic legacy in Kabwe town

Economy Mining leaves toxic legacy in Kabwe town

Irene Solo ate soil from tree bark and anthills when she was pregnant in the belief among some Zambians that it makes babies strong.

It’s a tradition that could prove fatal for her young son and thousands of other children in Kabwe, where a once-thriving mining industry has left deadly concentrations of lead in soil and water in what activists say is a sign of Africa’s environmental degradation.

“Doctors have told me that Lasford was poisoned with lead while he was in my womb because I used to eat a lot of soil,” said Solo.

“I have been told that lead poisoning kills or leaves children with disabilities, but I hope and pray that my son will live to become a medical doctor.”

Mining is Zambia’s economic lifeblood, but Kabwe’s mineral riches dried up in 1994, when heavy financial losses forced the state-run Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) company to shut down operations.

Once one of Africa’s largest and richest mining towns, Kabwe was left with a legacy of toxic waste.

Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental group which works with the United Nations and World Bank, ranks Kabwe among the world’s top 10 most polluted cities.

Environmental groups have accused Zambia’s government of ignoring environmental hazards in Kabwe. State authorities say they only became aware of the problem in 2000.

“There were a few things the ZCCM could not do at the time the mine was closed which are being done now,” Zambia’s mining minister, Kalombo Mwansa, told Reuters.

Companies who have expressed an interest in reviving the mining industry in Kabwe will not win contracts unless they commit to waste management in the future, he added.

The government has resettled families and provided them with clean drinking water. Parks have been created in townships to keep children from playing in soil. And a public education programme has been launched.


But it may be too late to save Kabwe residents from decades of lead contamination, which can stunt growth and cause brain damage and infertility.

Up to 5,000 people have been affected by poisoning and the lives of about 60,000 children and adults are at risk, government officials say. Levels of lead poisoning above 120 micrograms per decilitre can kill.

In Kabwe, 117.6 micrograms per decilitre have been found in both adults and children, said Mark Radin, research assistant at Blacksmith, which is financed through donations from other environmental groups and individuals.

“ZCCM conducted studies in Chowa Township and Kasanda Township in 1996-1997. They found a wide range of blood levels in the 7,736 residents they tested in the Chowa Township, the range was 27.7-117.6,” he told Reuters.

An unspecified number of children were found with an alarming level of 300 micrograms per decilitre, according to reports cited on Blacksmith’s Web site.

Gauging the extent of the damage may take years.

“We are yet to discover what lead poisoning has caused in our children and mothers because the problem was only identified in 2004,” said Nancy Zyongwe, a doctor with a state-run company created to clean up the environment in mining towns.

“It is a major surprise that even children with higher lead content look very fit. We are investigating all these issues as we treat the children but good (conclusive) results may take up to seven years.”

Zambia’s economic growth has been accelerating thanks to an increase in copper production. The southern African country has also won praise from Western governments for prudent economic policies.

But poverty remains widespread and critics say Zambia should be reaping bigger benefits from its vast mining resources.

Zambia has turned to the World Bank and international funds to clean up Kabwe, a central town of thatched and mud brick houses which lacks basic infrastructure and modern schools.

So far $50 million in loans and grants have been secured but $40 million more is needed, Zambian officials say.

Life hasn’t always been so hard in Kabwe: it was once the symbol of the independence struggle against the British. Liberation hero Kenneth Kaunda used to announce his landmark economic policies in the former industrial hub.

These days, Kabwe’s people have little time for nostalgia. They are busy scratching out a living, despite the dangers.

Rhoda Mwape was diagnosed with high lead content in her blood in 2005. She still scavenges for scraps of metal to support her children. She may never see them grow up.

“I know the dangers of lead to my health but I have no choice,” said the mother of eight.



  1. The issue is, there needs to be a complete, long-term, independent impact assessment on health and economic conditions of all kabwe residents who have been born, lived or died under those conditions. The compensation measures the minister is mentioning are not obviously adequate.

  2. This is very serious, lead is a highly toxic substance.For Mrs Ireen Solo, I’m not 100% sure of the tree being the source of her poisoning because when a pregnant woman has an elevated blood lead level, that lead can easily be transferred to the fetus, as lead crosses the placenta. In fact, pregnancy itself can cause lead to be released from the bones , where lead is stored—often for decades—after it first enters the blood stream.Once the lead is released from the mother’s bones, it re-enters the blood stream and can end up in the fetus. In such cases, the baby is born with an elevated blood lead level.

  3. For those in Kabwe whose children are already poisoned there are some things you can do like
    1. eating right: The amount of lead the human body retains can be reduced if you make sure your child’s diet includes plenty of foods that contain iron, calcium and zinc. Foods rich in iron include eggs, greens vegetables, beans. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are recommended for their high calcium content. Lean red meat contains zinc. Avoid giving children fried or fatty foods—although remember that a certain amount of dietary fat is vital for children under two years of age. And make sure your children always wash their hands before eating.
    2.Check your ceramic ware. Some pottery may contain lead that can leach into food and drinks. Avoid eating off any colorfully painted ceramic plates, and avoid drinking from any ceramic mugs unless you know they do not leach lead.

  4. ZCCM-IH is still in operation and it is worth a lot of money. If people of Kabwe are serious about mitigating the situation they can sue ZCCM-IH in a class action law suite. Cauple of months ago Mopani polluted Kafue river and i’m sure nothing has been done about it. We need to take issues of pollution seriously or we will end up like USA. In the US they have weighed two issues cancer and food security. They have decided rather have food with a tone of chemicals in it and face the posibility of cancer than die of hunger. We have to study our options and come up with solutions that will minimise pollution while creating stiffer penalties for those delibaretly polluting our beloved “Z”. KC bushe ku Kitwe bachili bala reliza SENTA? There is a lot of ways to deal with these toxic chemicals now that where not available during Broken Hill days. The mines dont want to invest in pollution management. But its GRZ’s job to enforce the ECZ pullution management rules.

  5. Good points Dr ADC. I’d just like to hear your views in the context of compensation for damage already done. Much of whats in your ‘prescription’ places the burden on the individual, and is probably too costly for many people there. And we all know this doesnt do enough from a public health perspective. What specific health and developmental impairment does lead pollution present? If they can be itemized, could we figure out their impact the census data or some other surveys?

  6. where was ECZ before the pollution of the environment? I wonder the ECZ monitors the toxic substances released from our industries. The problem in Kabwe is very serious. Kabwe citizens should start sueing the ECZ,ZCCM-IH then the so-called government. If the ECZ can not carry its job then we don’t need it, its role is to protect citizens from any harmful substances by implement measures, standards and limits of every toxic substance so that its not harmful to human.

  7. #7 good point.where is the ECZ?.i thought these guys are the ones to collect the right data about levels of polluntion on the former mine in kabwe.and to what extent that polution has gone.its sad that innocent lives are suffering at the expence of having good qualitable environmental engineers.do they have environmental eng at UNZA?.just incase someone wants to kno,eating soil does not make the unborn baby strong.let us pass this mesg on because for sure there is this tendancy by expecting mothersin zambia of eating soil.much as soil has its reach components,it is not supposed to be taken in direct by human beings.NO!we get the nutrients from plants that are getting them from the soil.environmentallists do yo homework.

  8. This should serve as a reminder to all stakeholders as we invite more and more foreign investors that preserving the environment is paramount. All too often multinational mining and other companies are not keen to clean up after themselves. When the mineral deposits are exhausted, they just up and leave. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us to make the protection of our environment a priority. Simply leaving everything to the government (or ECZ) is not an option. Without popular protests, some officials in places of responsibilty are tempted to look the other way to avoid taking on a mining giant. This happens even in developed countries. Recently, it was mass demonstrations that stopped Museveni from handing a forest of ecological importance to a sugar manufacturing company. Some people even died, but in the end the government recapitulated. As #2 says, I hope there will be a full impact assessment carried out in Kabwe.

  9. Mr president this your madam’s home,please do something.Pakwanaubunga tapabaisoni.Before we lose more children amutwafwe bukateteka pakabwe na chimbo

  10. Enviromenatal pollution is a huge problem in developing nations like Zambia. We just read not very long time from now about the Kafue river being Polluted by the Mines and other new indudtries. The Kafue weed is due to pollutions from NCZ. The Kabwe incidence is just another case that was ignored for a long time. Now the people of Kabwe will be like Hiroshima and Nakasaki where deformity in Babies is high. Whos is going to take the blame? Who is going to Help the victims of a poulluted enviroment? Goverment, because they know where the sales from copper from Kabwe went.

    Post newspapers: Thursday June 21, 2007
    PRESIDENT Levy Mwanawasa is today expected to launch the Keep Zambia Clean campaign. Local government and housing minister Sylvia Masebo said during a press briefing yesterday that the launch at 19:00 hours would trigger various activities intended to improve the environment. Masebo highlighted activities that include cleaning of Soweto Market on Saturday, which will be spearheaded by first lady Maureen Mwanawasa, and marketeers. Masebo said the Minister of Communication and Transport Sara Sayifwanda would be working with bus drivers and conductors to clean buses.“The Mayor of Lusaka is expected to clean and unblock drainages in Mandevu compound. The Inspector General of police will be ready to enforce law in the week. The provincial minister for the Copperbelt will launch activities in Kitwe. The Hoteliers chairperson Mr Gaudenzio Rossi will be cleaning a hotel,” she said. Masebo said health minister Dr Brian Chituwo was expected to clean a ward at the University Teaching Hospital and the education minister would clean a school in Chawama. Masebo said the Minister of Home Affairs would clean one of the prisons. She said commerce minister Felix Mutati would on June, 28 launch the painting of shops in Kamwala and the town centre and hoped shop owners in the affected areas would begin painting their shops. Masebo said one of the Catholic parishes had been identified and would clean their surroundings. She said the chairperson of the House of Chiefs was expected in Southern Province to do a clean up campaign in one of the villages and he was also expected to commission a water supply project. Masebo further said the press needed to play a very important role in the exercise. “I note that The Post newspapers is organising (for next Thursday) a news forum where the Bank of Zambia governor will feature and talk about the Keep Zambia Clean campaign as a corporate responsibility,” she said. Masebo said the Minister of Tourism would also be launching a tree-planting exercise in Chilenje South and the community was encouraged in the tree-planting exercise. She said some time next week, she would be launching the new regulatory laws on nuisance and public health Act. Masebo said she intended to increase penalties so that they became more meaningful. “The current law in terms of fine is very minimum. People break the law knowing the fine is very little. For noise, honking, playing loud music, the current fee is K1, 000 or K2, 000 and I want to increase the fee to K100, 000 to K1 million. For parking in wrong areas, off loading on the road, we will be fining from K100, 000 to K1 million. For street vending, the fine is K500.00, we want to increase it to K100, 000. Other things like urinating in public, we want to increase the fine from K1, 000 to K50, 000 and K100, 000,” she said. She said other offences like keeping sheep and goats in the backyard would also be dealt with. Masebo said all vehicles involved in accidents and had been parked at police stations would be removed because they made the surroundings untidy. “The police will be very busy. The IG is expected to remove all the vehicles from police stations and deal with illegal car dealers. The public needs to be sensitised on what the law entails. There will also be inspections of schools, restaurants and other food outlets. Regulations need to be followed in full,” she said. Masebo said K200 million had been allocated in the budget for the exercise and the money had since been released. “We want Lusaka to go back to the garden city it was known for. We hope the Church will help preach messages of hygiene and people should not throw litter out of the car windows,” she said. Masebo also directed local authorities to write to owners of unfinished buildings and give them a period within which to complete construction or repossess them. On the dismissals of council workers at Ndola City Council, Masebo said government would not allow a situation where workers locked their superiors out of their offices.“We won’t condone such behaviour from council employees and what the mayor has done is in line with the conditions of service and we will support him on the action the council has taken. It is important as a country not to support anarchy as much as they may have good reasons for their strike action, but where they lock offices can’t be allowed. I hear ZCTU wants to come and see me and I hope not to support anarchy,” said Masebo.

  12. Hey fellow fire fighters, what’s going on here today in the punditry world? Thank God it’s Friday again.

  13. Francis, young children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to leads harmful health effects, because their brains and central nervous system are still being formed. For them, even very low levels of exposure can result in reduced IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing, and kidney damage. At high levels of exposure, a child may become mentally retarded, fall into a coma, and even die from lead poisoning.Lead poisoning has also been associated with juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior.
    Ofcourse the ECZ and other enviromental experts should take action but I’m yet to see our goverment taking responsibility for their negligence.If we take them to court in will take 7-10years to get a verdict so let our brothers and sisters of Kabwe take their lives in their own hands and take measures to reduce the adverse health effects of lead poisoning.

  14. 12# These are routine things in the western culture. When you move in a house you have to paint it and when you are leaving you do the same. People are employed to clean the surroundings and collecting of fines. I would advise the Govt to work out also merchanise of registering people with permenant resident. This is the only way this clean initiative can work it is very effective. Once one committe an offence he or she is give a a period of two weeks to defend himself or pay the fines. Any delayments leads to more cost even a court process. Once such things start happening the government will have enough revenue which can be channelled first in job creation by the people doing these jobs. And any surplus can be used in other areas such street kids, opharnage, Assistance for Old people education. Its very embarrassing seeing people who have worked for Zambia very hard lendered hopeless when they retire.

  15. Well ECZ never existed back then ..for those asking where ECZ was. It was only created or rather became effective when Chiluba came into power. One of FTJ’s great contribution to our great nation

  16. Ba Chanda Phiri lost sheep which ECZ do you mean. Electricity Cancelling of Zambia or Electro Commision of Zambia in charge of elections in the country. Is it some Environmental Council of Zambia which is in infective. Look it took a foerign company from Germany to investage the desipotion of Uranium in one residential area in Kitwe. We are paying 500 000 euros for this job.

  17. ECZ=Environmental Council of Zambia and Ministry of Environment were introduced during FTJ’s term of office. That is the ECZ I mean.

  18. OH MY GOD.am scared coz i grew up in kabwe am the victim am not in zed but i grew up there am a student studying enviroment .please may the GRZ DO SOMETHING TOMMOROW AM GOING TO THE HOSPITAL FOR ANALISES

  19. it’s a waste of govt money for mwanawasa and his boys to launch the so called lunch keep zambia clean campaign.look they is ever increasing shanties,tutembas every after 10centmetres…toilets even at the very center of Lusaka..go and check under Lusaka flyover bridge, guess u know what am talking about.
    people let levy not foul us,we need law to curb all these junks?? begin right from the local govt to central govt with sound leadership it can be done.

  20. Ladies and Gentlemen, ALL OF YOU ON THIS BLOG HAVE NOT INDICATED ANY SOLUTION to kabwe’s polluted water bodies and soil. Can someone pliz give us a scientific solution and not just about shouting loud about how many miligrams are in babies. I grew up in Kabwe and my youngest sister was born there. Kabwes issue has nothing to do with lpm to start with. But the area that is highly contaminated should have residents evacuated without hesitation and clean water supply provided. Let all pipo in makululu township close up all their water wells…My young man SADIST is an environmental specialist we will be giving you solutions soon as we research on methodolgies that can effectively be implemented. Furthermore, mining in Kabwe, especially should be conducted under strict environmental norms that should satisfy the international standards failure to which no further operations should be condoned. Money has already been indicated in as how much is needed.. but what methodology has been sugstd?

  21. Antidote, drug or other remedy that counteracts the effects of a poison. It may neutralize the poison chemically, as bicarbonate taken as an antidote for acid; it may render the poison insoluble and therefore harmless, as Epsom salt as an antidote for lead; it may absorb the poison, as charcoal as an antidote for alkaloids; or it may coat the stomach, as olive oil as an antidote for ammonia poisoning.
    Epsom Salts, common name for colorless or white crystalline salt (magnesium sulfate hepta-hydrate, MgSO4·7H2O) found in the minerals kieserite and epsomite and in mineral waters. Another suggestion is building/erecting round the mine or the source of pollution what we call “SANITARY PROTECTED ZONE” for all places round over with lead concentrations higher than MAXIMUM PERMISSIBLE CONCENTRATION! As to how far the zone will be, that might depend on alot of factors which includes wind direction & speed! & Public awareness compaign!

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