“This is the worst environmental disaster I have seen in 30 years of practice. 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.”
FRIDAY 23 AUGUST 2019
Zambian lead poisoning victims prepare to launch class action against Anglo American South Africa Ltd
Source: Leigh Day
A legal class action case is being prepared against Anglo American South Africa Ltd on behalf of Zambian communities living in the vicinity of the Kabwe lead mine who are suffering from lead poisoning.
Kabwe was the world’s largest lead mine and operated from around 1915 until its closure in 1994. From 1925 to 1974, its most productive period, the mine was owned and operated and/or managed by Anglo American South Africa Ltd.
The mine is situated in close proximity to villages comprising around 230,000 residents. Tens of thousands of Kabwe residents are estimated to have developed high blood lead levels, mainly through ingestion of dust contaminated by emissions from the mine smelter and waste dumps. A series of published reports has found very high levels of lead in the blood of a substantial proportion of the local population, in particular very young children.
Johannesburg attorneys, Mbuyisa Moleele, in collaboration with London-based human rights law firm, Leigh Day, have been investigating the case and liaising with the local communities for the past two years. They have so far been instructed on behalf of almost 200 children who have been treated for lead poisoning. They are preparing the class action in South Africa and an application to certify a class action will be filed in the Johannesburg High Court. The purpose of the action will be to secure compensation for victims of lead poisoning, including the cost of an effective medical monitoring system for blood lead levels among the community.
A report was published today by Human Rights Watch titled “‘We Have to Be Worried’: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia,” which examines the effects of lead contamination in Kabwe on children’s rights to health, a healthy environment, education, and play.
In 2012, the US Center for Disease Control revised down its threshold standard from 10 μg/dL to 5 μg/dL. This was due to medical evidence indicating a lowering of children’s IQ at levels as low as 5 μg/dL.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) some of the problems associated with lead poisoning in children range from reduced IQ, behavioural problems and reduced growth to severe anaemia and kidney damage, and in the worst cases can cause brain damage and even death.
In Kabwe, in young children aged up to five years old, published studies have consistently found massively elevated BLLs. In the most affected townships around Kabwe around 50% of children have BLLs higher than 45μg/dL the threshold above which medical antidote treatment is required. Nearly all the children in these areas have BLLs above 20 μg/dL, the level at which urgent action is required to reduce exposure.
The scale of this environmental health disaster has been evident for decades. For example, a 1972 medical journal article referred to extreme lead pollution in the Kabwe area. A 1975 thesis by a Dr A.R.L. Clark from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that children in Kasanda, especially infants of 1-3 years, had strikingly high average BLLs of up to 103 μg/dL.
The case will be brought in the South African courts where the head office company and proposed defendant, Anglo American South Africa Ltd, is based. It is alleged that from 1925 to 1974, Anglo American SA played a key role in the management of the medical, engineering and other technical services at the mine, and that it failed to take adequate steps to prevent lead poisoning of the local residents.
Zanele Mbuyisa, Director of Mbuyisa Moleele, said:
“Doing these cases I am always dismayed by the inequality and disregard shown by multinational companies like Anglo American. The founders of Anglo American are hailed as trailblazers as they created generational wealth for themselves, their families and investors yet at the same time we believe their operations have caused trans generational poverty and ill health for their workers as well as the environment. In this case we will argue that the environmental damage created has potentially contaminated almost three generations of men, women and children.”
Richard Meeran, partner and Head of Leigh Day’s International Department, said:
“This is the worst environmental disaster I have seen in 30 years of practice. 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. This would not have been tolerated in Europe or the US. 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.”
Richard Meeran, Head of Leigh Day’s International Department and Zanele Mbuyisa have collaborated on claims against multinationals for the past 20 years. They worked together on the UK litigation against Cape plc brought by 7,500 asbestos miners that settled in 2003. Prior to that, in the 1990s, Richard Meeran acted in the mercury poisoning claims of 42 Thor Chemicals workers. They joined forces with Legal Aid South Africa and the Legal Resources Centre in the silicosis test case litigation on behalf of 23 President Steyn gold miners, which settled in 2013. Meeran & Mbuyisa worked together on the silicosis claims by 4,385 miners against Anglo American South Africa and AngloGold, which settled in March 2016 and led to the establishment of the Q(h)ubeka Trust.
The world’s most toxic town: the terrible legacy of Zambia’s lead mines
Source: The Guardian
Almost a century of lead mining and smelting has poisoned generations of children in the Copperbelt town of Kabwe in Zambia
- Damian Carrington Environment editor in Kabwe, Zambia
“I’d like to be a doctor,” says seven-year-old Martin, sitting quietly in his modest home in Kabwe, Zambia. But the truth is that Martin struggles with his schoolwork, and his dream seems unlikely to become a reality.
Kabwe is the world’s most toxic town, according to pollution experts, where mass lead poisoning has almost certainly damaged the brains and other organs of generations of children – and where children continue to be poisoned every day.
Almost a century of lead mining and smelting has left a truly toxic legacy in the once-thriving town of 220,000 people in central Africa’s Copperbelt, 100km north of the capital Lusaka. But the real impact on Kabwe’s people is yet to be fully revealed and, while the first steps towards a clean-up have begun, new dangers are emerging as desperately poor people scavenge in the vast slag heap known as Black Mountain.
“Having been to probably 20 toxic hotspots throughout the world, and seeing mercury, chromium and many contaminated lead sites, [I can say] the scale in Kabwe is unprecedented,” says Prof Jack Caravanos, an environmental health expert at New York University, on his fourth visit to the town. “There are thousands of people affected here, not hundreds as in other places.”
The fumes from the giant state-owned smelter, which closed in 1994, has left the dusty soil in the surrounding area with extreme levels of lead. The metal, still used around the world in car batteries, is a potent neurotoxin and is particularly damaging to children. But it is youngsters who swallow the most, especially as infants when they start to play outside and frequently put their hands in their mouths.
It was at that age that Martin’s mother, Annie Kabwe, first noticed her children getting stomach pains and fevers, and losing weight. “I thought it might be HIV, but the tests were negative,” she says. Then blood tests revealed very high levels of lead.
“I thought they would die,” Kabwe says. After learning about the toxicity of the dust in her neighbourhood and reducing her children’s lead exposure, through frequent washing of hands and clothes, the worst has not happened. “The problem is they are not really learning well in school, so the lead is still affecting them,” she says.
Caravanos says lead poisoning stays with you for the rest of your life – it can’t be reversed. Having seen the extreme lead levels measured in children in several townships, he says severe and widespread health impacts are highly likely, including brain damage, palsy and ultimately fatalities. “I am concerned kids are dying here,” he says.
Barry Mulimba, who as a volunteer community facilitator has seen many affected children, says: “I feel very, very sad, especially for the children, because we consider the children our future leaders and if they do not get a good education, they will not be capable.”
The slow, insidious nature of lead poisoning means careful epidemiological work is needed to distinguish its effects from other causes and reveal the true extent of the crisis. But that work has barely begun. “It is shocking to think that we are here in 2017 and that problem we have known about for decades is still here,” says Caravanos.
Lead poisoning remains a highly sensitive issue in Kabwe and people from several organisations refused to speak to the Guardian, while those trying to tackle the problem complain that data gathered by officials is not made public.
One local source reports that there are children with brain damage, paralysis and blindness – all classic symptoms of lead poisoning – who have not been tested for lead, and that some children with disabilities are hidden away by families fearing stigma. A second source says that the children in Chowa, the township that once housed the mines and smelter workers, are markedly different from those in less polluted townships: “I do notice a slowness in them and they take much longer to catch on to ideas.”
What is clear in Kabwe is the extreme levels of contamination. A large World Bank project that ended in 2011 revealed the problem, though it achieved little in remediating the pollution. In affected townships, the lead in soils is about 10 times the US safety limit and far higher in hotspots.
One such hotspot turns out to be the dusty yard of the only medical clinic in Chowa, which serves 14,000 people. Caravanos uses a handheld detector to reveal extreme lead levels in the sun-baked mud, frequently over 10,000 parts per million (ppm), far above the 400ppm limit in the US. The clinic’s head declined to be interviewed by the Guardian.
The blood levels of lead in children in Kabwe are also known to be very high – a recent study revealed that every one of 246 children tested were above the safety limit of 5 micrograms per decilitre of blood. The vast majority were over 45 micrograms per decilitre, which causes brain, liver and hearing damage, and eight were over 150 micrograms per decilitre, at which point death is the likely outcome.
However, in 2015, 113 years after the smelter first opened, NGOs began to clean up the first homes, funded by Germany’s Terrre des Hommes and delivered by Environment Africa and Pure Earth, using workers from the community. More than 120 homes have had the soil in their yards replaced with clean soil from elsewhere.
“It is a drop in the ocean, but we are happy that we have targeted the most polluted homes first,” says Namo Chuma, Environment Africa’s director in Zambia. But Chuma believes that official recognition of the problem is at least finally starting to be seen: “The government does now acknowledge there is a problem.”
Paul Mukuka, director of public health at Kabwe Municipal Council, says: “The government, like any other government, is concerned for the health of its people.” He says there is a now a fund of 16m kwacha (about $1.7m) that will be spent on cleaning up Kabwe’s toxic pollution, providing the drug therapies that have been absent so far and repairing the clogged canal that is supposed to channel away the run-off from the mine site.
Wilford Chipeta, whose grandson has been poisoned, remains to be convinced: “We were promised that drugs were coming [before], but nothing came. They always talk but we get nothing.”
Mukuka was confronted by the lead crisis personally when he arrived in Kabwe a year ago looking for a clean neighbourhood for his family: “I have three beautiful girls at home – where are they going to be playing?” He says the new plan also promises new livelihoods, to draw people away from scavenging among the mine’s dumps.
On Black Mountain, bare-foot and ragged-clothed men dig out lead from the huge slag heap, often in long, unsupported tunnels, dug with hand tools and lit only by candles.
“When you don’t make them properly, you find they just bury someone,” says Provost Musonda, a young father of three, and people have died in the scarred hellscape of Black Mountain. He earns about 80 kwacha ($8.50) a day, unless his chest pains prevent him working. “If I could get another job, I would go there. But there is no way of sustaining our lives otherwise.”
Caravanos uses a portable detector to measure the lead levels on Black Mountain: they are sky high at 30,000-60,000 ppm. “Kids playing here is really unbelievable,” he says, noting the youngsters nearby.
In another part of the mine waste dump, beyond a long breeze block wall emblazoned with large signs reading “Danger keep away!”, people sit in the dust breaking stones to sell as building materials.
At one spot, a young woman, Debola Kunda, toils away, with two of her young children lending a hand. The dust sparkles with the metallic glint of galena – pure lead sulphide – and the soil right next to her four-year-old son, Acili, measures an astronomical 37,900ppm – 100 times above the danger level.
She is concerned about the health of her children, who have not been tested for blood lead. “But what can we do when there are no others at home to take care of the children? How will we eat if we stay at home?” she says.
A new $65m project for Kabwe and three other copperbelt mining areas was approved by the World Bank in December but the Zambian government has yet to give the go-ahead. It could be transformative – but it has yet to happen.
“A programme of more than 3,000 children and citizens of Kabwe would be subjected to constant medical surveillance and treatment programmes and anyone who showed a high blood lead level would be subjected to treatment as well,” says Sanjay Srivastava, at the World Bank, who is optimistic the crisis will be at last tackled. “The government finally recognises there is an issue and and they have to address it.”
Caravanos, who is also senior science advisor to Pure Earth, says the solution to Kabwe’s toxic trouble is clear: “We have the knowledge – we just have to get the kids away from the exposure. Will Kabwe ever be a lead-free town? No, but it can be a lead safe town.”