(Lusaka) – Zambia’s next government should urgently clean up lead pollution that has affected the health of tens of thousands of children and adults in the city of Kabwe, six organizations said today, following the publication of a United Nations experts’ letter on the issue. The Zambian general elections are scheduled for August 12, 2021. The organizations are Human Rights Watch, Advocacy for Child Justice, Caritas Zambia, Children's Environmental Health Foundation, Environment Africa Zambia, and Terre des Hommes.
On July 26 the UN published a letter from two UN special rapporteurs, the expert on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, and the expert on persons with disabilities, Gerard Quinn, to the government of Zambia, about the severe lead pollution and serious human rights concerns in and around the former mine in Kabwe, Central Province. They asked the Zambian government about its steps to address the toxic threat and urged robust steps to end the longstanding health rights violations and ensure the health, safety, and well-being of Kabwe’s residents. The experts also sent a letter to Jubilee Metals, a South African company planning to reprocess metals at the former mine, and a letter to the South African government, seeking information about the human rights impacts of their business.
“UN experts on toxic pollution and on people with disabilities have sounded the alarm bell over Kabwe,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Zambian political leaders and candidates should recognize the urgency of the Kabwe situation and commit in their election campaigns to cleaning up this toxic legacy.”
Kabwe was the site of a mine and smelter that polluted the environment with extremely high levels of toxic lead from 1904 to 1994. Kabwe residents still have lead-polluted homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and roads, as documented in a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands of children living near the mine are at acute risk of severe health risks from lead poisoning. It is estimated that up to 200,000 people in the vicinity have elevated blood lead levels.
The former mine area contains over five million tons of waste from the mine and smelter. Lead dust from these uncovered waste dumps continues to blow over to nearby residential areas and threaten community health. Rather than directly tackling the waste piles, the government has licensed further mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks. In their letter, the UN experts expressed concern about reports of ongoing artisanal and small-scale mining.
Lead is a heavy metal so toxic that there is no known safe level of exposure, according to the World Health Organization. It can cause hearing loss, vision loss, high blood pressure, IQ deficits, behavioral problems, and even coma, convulsions, and death. Children are especially at risk because their bodies are still developing and absorb proportionally more lead than adults.
A 2018 medical study estimated that over 95 percent of children in townships exposed to lead from the Kabwe mine have elevated blood lead levels, and about half of children in the townships have such high blood lead levels that they urgently require medical intervention. Adults are also affected, with particular risks during pregnancy. A video made by local youth activists working with Environment Africa in 2019 highlights the impact on children and the need for action.
The mine was originally owned by British colonial companies, including Anglo American, and later nationalized. There was never a comprehensive clean-up even though the mine was closed in 1994. Anglo American is currently facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of affected children and women of childbearing age in Kabwe, filed by lawyers from South Africa and the United Kingdom in October 2020.
“People in Kabwe whose rights to health have been violated have a right to effective remedies,” said Namo Chuma, country director of Environment Africa Zambia. “This includes access to health care, reparations, and immediate measures to end further toxic exposure.”
The UN expert on toxics and human rights, officially the special rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to examine the human rights implications of toxic and otherwise hazardous substances, as well as initiatives to promote and protect human rights in this context. The special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities is mandated to strengthen efforts to recognize, promote, implement, and monitor the rights of people with disabilities.
The Zambian government has taken some important steps to tackle the problem, the groups said. It is currently testing and treating children affected by lead in Kabwe with a loan from the World Bank, and has started to remediate homes and a school. However, its efforts do not address the source of the contamination itself, the mine waste. If the waste is not cleaned up, progress made could be quickly reversed, as it will continue to spread toxic dust across the area.
The government should conduct a comprehensive remediation process with the technical and financial support of donors and companies, the groups said. Regulations governing the human rights and environmental obligations of corporations in their global operations are urgently needed to avoid such disasters in the future.
“The lead pollution in Kabwe is a scandal,” said Bishop Clement Mulenga, the bishop of Kabwe. “Proper remediation and reclamation are needed right now to protect the health and future of Kabwe’s children.”