What to know about lead pollution, potable water

LOUIS Mwape.

BETWEEN 2014 and 2015, there was a call from the Public Health Department and other stakeholders, urging parents in Kabwe, especially those based in lead prone areas, to have their children visit health centres and be tested for lead contamination.
And in 2016, the International Development Agency (IDA) released US$65.5 million to help Zambia implement what they dubbed Zambia Mining Environment Remediation and Improvement Project (ZMERIP), which was aimed at preventing mining-related pollution in Kabwe and the Copperbelt.
Lead mining in Kabwe indeed left a mixed legacy, and for anyone who has lived or been there, an issue that often arises and sparks wide debate and controversy is lead pollution. And the most fascinating episode in that debate is that part where some people insist that the entire fate of Kabwe is at stake, because its air, water and ground are contaminated.
Because of its past lead and zinc mining activities that came to a close in June 1994, countless commentators from home and abroad have been writing about Kabwe making it to the lists of the most polluted places in the world. Information on this unhappy record breaking listing is all over the internet.
By and large, even most Kabwe residents have for a long time equally maintained with unbending conviction that everything is polluted in their neighbourhood. A case in point is the most frequently asked question as to whether the water that utility supplies is lead-free. “Does lead affect potable water? How safe is the water we drink in Kabwe?” These and many other related questions are frequently asked, especially during public exhibitions.
The question of lead poisoning in Kabwe remains poorly understood by the locals in that most of them envisage that lead is all over their places. Most of these misconceptions have been put on a pedestal and are embraced as chronicles from past generations, which lived at a time when lead mining and consequently poisoning was a daily talk of the town.
To start with, lead, also known as lead sulphide denoted by (Pb), is a heavy soft bluish-white lustrous mineral primarily produced from another mineral called galena. This mineral does not dissolve in water. In fact, its efficacy in dust goes away with mere sprinkling of water.
Silence on misconceptions pervading most of Kabwe residents will not easily go away if nothing is done to correct them. It is, therefore, the crucial stakeholder’s duty such as the Public Health Department, the commercial utility and the municipal council to clarify the state of potable water in Kabwe.
I stumbled upon a significant and meticulous report I will frequently make reference to in this article; the Kabwe Scoping and Design Study (KSDS) and Lukanga Water quality compliance reports certified by the Zambia Bureau of Standards.
Few years after the closure, Kabwe Mine and mineral processing operations in June 1994, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines-Investment Holdings initiated the KSDS in 2001.
This was a five-year multilaterally funded programme aimed at addressing and determining the extent and magnitude of contamination by lead and other inorganic contaminants in air, soil, mine waste, groundwater, surface water and domestic crops in the Kabwe environment.
The study was done in the vicinity of Kabwe Mine Complex in areas prone to lead mining activities such as Chowa, Kasanda, parts of Makululu and Magandanyama. The KSDS survey on ground and surface water indicates that the impact is negligible generally within critical thresholds of potable water showing lead concentrations to be consistently below the internationally established World Health Organisation guidelines of 0.01 mg per litre.
The study revealed that with regard to virtually all hydro chemical parameters, the impact of Kabwe Mine workings on water quality in most areas around Kabwe where samples were collected from which much of Kabwe’s potable water was being abstracted, is effectively zero. Therefore, that puts the water quality question to rest. Kabwe’s potable water does not contain lead.
To what extent does lead affect potable water?
The KSDS reports reveal that lead does not affect water per se until concentrations go beyond the limit of 0.01 mg per litre. The report also indicates that lead in most places is within acceptable standards and that it does not compromise the quality of water the utility company supplies to customers.
According to a Kabwe-based quality assurance officer, Moses Liemisa, lead does not actually dissolve in water.
“People should understand that lead is a heavy metal which does not dissolve in water. However, its particles could compromise the quality if they go beyond acceptable standards especially in susceptible shallow wells” Mr Liemisa said.
He further added that the water the LgWSC supplies to its customers is highly monitored for any contaminants and it is treated to highest standards. He said water quality remains at par with the World Health Organisation benchmark of 98 percent.
The KSDS reveals that mostly it is shallow wells that compromise the quality of water especially in lead-prone areas. The study further reveals that because of their nature, most shallow wells are not well covered and dust particles continuously seep into them, posing a risk to would-be consumers.
What is the water company doing?
LgWSC has always placed emphasis on the need for its customers to use either stand taps or water kiosks as opposed to drawing water from shallow wells, especially in lead-prone areas. In the past LgWSC had a sensitisation programme in which it also offered technical advice on lead suppression activities. Lead can be controlled through dust suppression, greening the environment and gardening.
On the other hand, the commercial utility has continued to lobby for support from the central government and other cooperating partners, with the aim of expanding its water infrastructure and consequently its water coverage.
The author is communication officer at Lukanga Water and Sewerage Company Limited.

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