Kabwe families grappling with lead effects

SOME illegal miners scavenging for lead at the closed Kabwe mine. PICTURE: CHAMBO NG’UNI

AT FIRST glance, all seems well with Godfrey Namushi, until he shares the story of how lead contamination has affected his family.

“One of my children is not okay. He seemed fine from birth but is not growing like a child of his age is expected to grow,” Mr Namushi says.
Mr Namushi lives in Chowa Stage Four neighbourhood in Kabwe, Central Province, an area that is on record as having high lead contamination levels.
In 2014 and 2015, residents of Chowa were requested to visit Chowa Clinic to be tested for lead contamination. It was during this period that Mr Namushi realised the effects of lead on his son.
“We were tested and I was later told that my child is battling with high Blood Lead Level (BLL) contamination. At that time my son was five,” he said.
Mr Namushi said further tests have been conducted on his son to determine the lead milligram/kilogramme (mg/kg) in the blood.
Like other children living near hotspots grappling with lead toxicology, his son’s future is uncertain.
Mr Namushi is not the only parent worrying over lead contamination in the area. Ezilda Mulenga has a seven-year-old child who is a victim of lead contamination.
Ms Mulenga, a mother of four, thought her last-born was in good health until her blood was tested.
“I was not told about what they found [mg/kg of lead] at the clinic,” she says. “They told us she had a problem of lead.”
Studies conducted between 2003 and 2006 in Kabwe, where lead and zinc were mined from 1902 to 1994, reveal that the content of lead in the soil in hotspots is as high as 26, 000 mg/kg. This is very high considering that acceptable levels of lead should be around 10 to 15 mg/kg. The cases of high BLL are more pronounced among children.
Apart from Chowa, Kasanda, Makandanyama, Kotonda, Waya Makululu, Mutwe wa Nsofu, and Railways areas are considered lead hotspots. The residents affected usually exhibit symptoms such as generalised abdominal pains and fever. It is estimated that about 70, 000 people live within 500m radius from lead contamination hotspots in the district.
Residents of Kabwe are not the only ones affected, as research has indicated that environmental liabilities and risks have increased in Zambia’s mining jewel, the Copperbelt Province.
Poor maintenance, residential encroachment, poor urban development decision, poor enforcement of environment standards have naturally deteriorated causing health risks to poor and vulnerable population, especially in Chingola, Kitwe and Mufulira districts.
Despite contributing about 11.8 percent to Zambia’s gross domestic product (GDP), the mining sector has, however, left a legacy of environment liabilities. These include air pollution, soil contamination, water pollution, catastrophic failure of tailing dams and lead contamination thereby negatively affecting the health and livelihoods of people.
To mitigate negative effects on human beings and the environment, a five-year Zambia Mining Environment Remediation and Improvement Project (ZMERIP) have been launched.
ZAMERIP, which covers Kabwe and Copperbelt, will implemented from until 2021.
The World Bank’s board of executive directors on December 26, 2016 approved a US$65.5 million International Development (IDA) credit for Zambia for implementation of ZAMERIP.
Ina Ruthenberg, World Bank country director says elevated high lead levels of blood affect the health of children such as their intelligence quotient.
“This a common story among so many children in Kabwe. We need to bring this to a stop and allow every child in Kabwe and other affected mining towns like Kitwe, Mufulira and Chingola,” Ms Ruthenberg says.
ZMERIP succeeds the World Bank funded Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) implemented from 2003 to 2011.
Among the objectives of the ZMERIP is the remediation of contamination hotspots, improvement of environment infrastructure, enhancing institutional capacity for the environment governance and compliance, and reducing environment health risks through localised interventions.
Affected people in Kabwe are expected to access the direct health interventions like BLL testing, treating and nutritional supplementation as well as education and awareness about the lead poisoning.
The project also targets a 50 percent reduction in BLL in 4000 children under the age of 15 to be tested and treated by 2022.
Minister of Mines and Minerals Development Christopher explains that though mining in Kabwe stopped some time back, communities are still grappling with the effect of lead and zinc on the environment
“Kabwe gives a typical example of what mining can do if not well managed,” Mr Yaluma said during the launch of ZMERIP this year.
Mr Yaluma says long-term mining liabilities should have been addressed under the CEP.
Little progress has been made in terms of sustainability of the programme, local economic development and job creation, ownership by local authorities and involvement of local communities.
“In Kabwe, the interventions will include measures to minimise lead exposure to local communities and will provide treatment to children that will be found with high blood lead levels,” Mr Yaluma says.
Meanwhile, Ms Ruthenberg stresses the need for Zambia to address environmental liability associated with mining.
“The children in these towns [Kabwe, Chingola, Kitwe and Mufulira districts] need to grow in a healthy environment to reach their full potential,” Ms Ruthenberg says.
Charity Chanda, who has lived in Chowa Stage One for 23, years hopes the ZMERIP will address the gaps left by the CEP.
“This problem has been there for many years,” Ms Chanda said. “I hope there is a lasting solution this time.”
Under a project that was done by Pure Earth, some households had top soil spread out on their yards to mitigate the effects of lead.
Mr Namushi is among several other parents who are waiting for the same intervention to take place in their households.

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