From 4 to 6 of December 2017, the United Nations Environmental Assembly will take place in Nairobi. As the overarching theme this year is pollution, in all of its forms, I thought it will be useful to have a look at the world’s mot polluted places. Let’s start with Kabwe.
Kabwe, in Zambia, 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. Years of lead mining have caused extreme levels of contamination and irreversible damage to the locals’ health, especially children.
For almost a century, this city of 300,000 residents in Zambia, has been highly contaminated with lead from a government-owned lead mine and smelter, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM). Although the mine has been closed since 1994, residents continue to get sick and die from the contamination due to a lack of cleanup efforts on the part of the company and the government.
Lead is one of the most potent neurotoxins known to humans. When breathed in, lead directly attacks the central nervous system. It is particularly damaging to infants and children and can cross the mother’s placenta, putting unborn and nursing infants at risk. Yet, remarkably, the citizens of Kabwe have until recently been completely unaware that they are living in one of the most poisoned cities on earth. Blacksmith Institute founded a local NGO, Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation (KERF), that has been bringing educational services to the community on how to limit exposure to lead and nursing support for those who are ill.
According to The Guardian’s report, residents and specifically children suffer from brain damage, paralysis, and blindness – all classic symptoms of lead poisoning. 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. The fumes from the giant state-owned smelter have left the dusty soil in the surrounding area with extreme levels of lead. The metal is 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.
But the real impact on Kabwe’s people is yet to be fully revealed. 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 was above the safety limit of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The vast majority were over 45 micrograms per deciliter, which causes brain, liver and hearing damage, and eight were over 150 micrograms per deciliter, 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. Although the government does acknowledge the problem, setting up proper clinics in such cases isn’t always an easy task. Furthermore, the slow and 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. The only medical clinic in Chowa, a town close by, serves 14,000 people. Doctors use 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.
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. A new $65m project for Kabwe and three other copper-belt 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. It’s highly unlikely for Zabwe to become a lead-free town anytime soon, which only means the situation calls for urgent measures; those kids need to get far away from the exposure. But where will those people go then? Without a broader understanding of the living conditions in Zabwe, we end up imposing naïve western ideas on complex situations.
For example, adults still have to work in order to survive and it seems so far there is no alternative offered to them; among the mine’s dumps, on the so-called 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, the Guardian reports. “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”.
“A program of more than 3,000 children and citizens of Kabwe would be subjected to constant medical surveillance and treatment programs 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 recognizes there is an issue and they have to address it”. It all sounds extremely promising, but the aim here is to cure the symptoms, not the disease.