MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Imagine working in a building every day that is riddled with heavy metal dust particles to the point that stepping inside incrementally decreases one’s quality of life.
Every breath of every minute on the clock means one step closer to the symptoms of heavy metal poisoning — confusion, numbness, nausea, vomiting and even possibly falling into a coma.
Now imagine it’s your child who is affected and his or her school is the building where the exposure to these horrifying conditions takes place.
What is supposed to be a positive learning environment is negated by prolonged exposure to toxic metals stunting growth and brain development. This is reality for kids who attend David Ramushu School in the town of Kabwe, Zambia located in the southern portion of Africa.
A government-run mine and smelter that operated for almost 100 years has caused the soil in Kabwe to become permeated with highly toxic levels of lead, cadmium and zinc.
The already dry climate combined with years upon years of windy seasons has spread the particles throughout the town thus becoming a health risk to all of its residents and especially the children.
Kabwe, referred to as “the world’s most toxic town” by various news outlets including The Guardian, has drawn scientists to its location for years to test soil and water samples in order to measure just how widespread the problem is.
Dr. Samuel Mutiti, professor of geology at Georgia College, is one such scientist, but his goal is to do more than just research and record.
“My drive is to find a solution, not just to get the research done, but to find a solution to help the people in the area,” Mutiti said.
After reading about the problem some years ago, the GC professor of nine years took a study group of six students to Kabwe back in 2013.
He and his students did what other scientists had done, take samples and note the results.
A three-week study abroad with many more learning experiences scheduled was not enough time to get a handle on the entire scope of the problem, so Mutiti applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in order to go back.
He was awarded the scholarship and returned to Zambia last October before realizing that the contamination could not be removed, but reducing exposure was a real possibility.
“The main issue is that the contamination is just everywhere in these five neighborhoods around the mine,” he said. “It’s in the homes, streets and schools. It’s very challenging to fix that; you can’t just fence it out. It has to be a holistic approach to this that includes health education, public education, environmental education and geology.”
Mutiti noted in a Thursday interview with The Union-Recorder that the locals see all of these scientists coming into their homes and community to take samples with nothing being done in the way of removal or protection.
He decided to step up and try to help the ailing people of Kabwe, but realized that the entire affected area could not be taken care of with the resources available.
So he set his sights on both a smaller area and group of people where he felt a significant impact could be made.
“I figured we could also target certain areas where people spend a lot of time,” Mutiti said.
“Schools are very important because that’s where the young people go and they’re more susceptible to the negative impacts of lead contamination.”
The geologist said there are five schools near the area of the now defunct mine.
The David Ramushu Combined (pre-K through 12th grade) School is just five blocks away and is downwind of the area where the problem originates.
“All of the dust samples we took, except for two classrooms, tested extremely high — way above the EPA standard for particulate dust. That’s why we picked this school because it was higher than the other schools we tested.”
The constant dryness makes it near impossible to grow grass in the playground area, so a dusty soccer field is all the kids have to wind down from time spent in the classroom.
The playground also happens to be one of the most highly affected areas with lead levels in the soil being about 15 times the acceptable limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mutiti has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to create ways to limit students’ exposure as they fight an uphill learning battle.
Classrooms need to be vacuumed out. Chemical immobilizer is needed to make the soil safer.
Synthetic turf grass would go a long way in giving the kids a safe surface on which to play the sport that they love.
But highest on Mutiti’s list is to build an 8-foot stone wall to go around the school to keep the wind from blowing dangerous particles into the learning environment.
That, and some strategically planted trees, would go a long way in helping the children as they just try to get an education.
“These kids are not getting a fair fighting chance in society,” Mutiti said.
“It’s not like they’re coming from very well-to-do families, they’re not the poorest neighborhoods in Zambia, but they are very poor still.”
The GC geologist has a goal of raising $15,000 to make the school as safe as possible, but he especially wants to have the wall up before returning to Milledgeville in August.
About $650 had been raised as of early Friday afternoon, and Mutiti has pledged $500 of his own money on top of that as he works toward his goal.
“Hopefully at the very least we can reduce the amount of particulate coming in. It’s a start.”
Donations can be made online at www.gofundme.com/david-ramushu-school-lead-clean-up or by searching “Ramushu school clean up” on the GoFundMe homepage.