Children living in Kabwe are still exposed to high levels of toxic lead, 25 years after mining ended in the area, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
The 88-page report, “We Have to Be Worried’: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia.” examines the effects of lead contamination in Kabwe on children’s rights to health, a healthy environment, education, and play.
Kabwe is known as one of the world’s most polluted places from decades of mining, with serious health implications for residents.
In the report, HRW Kabwe still has extreme levels of lead contamination and children continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust around their homes, schools and play areas.
“The Zambian government is aware that Kabwe has been severely contaminated … since the 1990s and efforts to clean up have been inadequate,” HRW’s children’s rights fellow and report author Joanna Naples-Mitchell said.
“This is a public health emergency and the government is not responding with the sense of urgency that is warranted,” she said.
The report said that despite lead and zinc mining having stopped in the town in 1994, various medical studies conducted over the past seven years show children there still had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“The profits of Kabwe’s mine came at a very high cost to generations of children who have grown up with toxic lead found throughout surrounding townships,” she said.
“While the Zambian government has made several attempts to clean up the lead since the mine closed in 1994, the actual scope of the problem has yet to be addressed.”
Between 2003 and 2011, the World Bank funded a government project to decontaminate Kabwe’s affected townships, and to test and treat children.
But some 76,000 people, or a third of the town’s population, still live in contaminated areas.
But one recent study published last year and cited by HRW estimated that more than 95 percent of children in the townships surrounding the lead mine have elevated blood lead levels and that about half of them require medical attention.
Three years ago, the government launched another five-year World Bank-funded project to get rid of the lead and carry out new rounds of testing and treatment.
The project targets around 10,000 people including children, pregnant women and mothers.
“Since the government has new plans now to clean up the lead… we think this a very important opportunity for the Zambian government to find a lasting solution to this problem,” said Naples-Mitchell.
“But their past record means it’s vital that they choose different models that will actually be effective in Kabwe because the past models have not worked. The study that was done in 2018 shows that levels of lead have been as high they had been in the 1970s,” she added.
In a letter last month, the government indicated to the HRW that it does not have enough resources to address the full scale of the contamination.
Government did not immediately comment on the report.
Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing for Anglo American after the law firm that took Vedanta to court regarding community abuses in Chingola has now turned its attention to allegations of lead poisoning at the UK mining group’s now closed Kabwe mine.
Johannesburg attorney, Mbuyisa Moleele, in collaboration with Leigh Day, a UK- based human rights attorneys, said they were preparing a legal class action case against Anglo American SA on behalf of Zambian communities.
Anglo American contends it was only one of several investors that owned Kabwe through the years and was never the majority owner.
“In the early 1970’s the company that owned the mine was nationalised by the Government of Zambia and for more than 20 years thereafter the mine was operated by a State-owned body until its closure in 1994,” it said.
The case will say activities at Anglo’s Kabwe lead mine, which operated from 1915 to 1994 and was for a while the world’s largest, was responsible for lead poisoning of tens of thousands of Kabwe residents.
“Very high levels” of lead has been detected in the blood of “a substantial proportion of the local population” the two law firms said citing “a series of published reports”.
Said Anglo: “We were concerned to learn of the situation at Kabwe as reported by the press, but since the nationalisation more than 40 years ago effectively placed these issues under the control of the Zambian Government, we are not in a position to comment further about the matter, but we certainly don’t believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation”.
“This is the worst environmental disaster I have seen in 30 years of practice,” said Richard Meeran, partner and head of Leigh Day’s International Department, in a statement.
“There is incontrovertible evidence of massive lead contamination of soil in local villages and of staggeringly high levels of lead in the blood of a substantial proportion of the local population in Kabwe, particularly among very young children,” he said.
“As a major multinational that holds itself out as a responsible corporate citizen, we believe Anglo American should compensate the lead poisoning victims and assist, practically and financially in the prevention of ongoing lead poisoning of these communities,” he said.
The attorneys said they were preparing the class action in South Africa and an application to certify a class action will be filed in the Johannesburg High Court.