Lead pollution in Zambia town a public health ‘emergency’: HRW

LUSAKA (AFP) – Children living in Zambia’s central town of Kabwe are still exposed to high levels of toxic lead, 25 years after mining ended in the area, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday.

Kabwe, around 150 kilometres north of Lusaka, is known as one of the world’s most polluted places from decades of mining, with serious health implications for residents.

In a report published yesterday, HRW said the town in the Copperbelt area still has extreme levels of lead contamination and children continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust around their homes, schools and play areas.

“The Zambian government is aware that Kabwe has been severely contaminated… since the 1990s and efforts to clean up have been inadequate,” HRW’s children’s rights fellow and report author Joanna Naples-Mitchell told AFP.

“This is a public health emergency and the government is not responding with the sense of urgency that is warranted,” she said.

The report said that despite lead and zinc mining having stopped in the town in 1994, various medical studies conducted over the past seven years show children there still had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Between 2003 and 2011, the World Bank funded a government project to decontaminate Kabwe’s affected townships, and to test and treat children. But some 76,000 people, or a third of the town’s population, still live in contaminated areas.

But one recent study published last year and cited by HRW estimated that more than 95 per cent of children in the townships surrounding the lead mine have elevated blood lead levels and that about half of them require medical intervention.

Three years ago, the government launched another five-year World Bank-funded project to get rid of the lead and carry out new rounds of testing and treatment.

The project targets around 10,000 people including children, pregnant women and mothers.

“Since the government has new plans now to clean up the lead… we think this a very important opportunity for the Zambian government to find a lasting solution to this problem,” said Naples-Mitchell.

“But their past record means it’s vital that they choose different models that will actually be effective in Kabwe because the past models have not worked. The study that was done in 2018 shows that levels of lead have been as high they had been in the 1970s,” she added.