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.