The battle is fraught with issues, including malfunctioning testing kits and expired medication, hampering the environmental recovery efforts. Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA), a critical medication for lead poisoning, expired after its procurement in October 2019, well before it could fulfill its purpose.
DMSA is in the chelating agent family of medications. It works by binding with lead and a number of other heavy metals, allowing them to leave the body in the urine.
The stakes were high, as the Zambia Mining and Environmental Remediation and Improvement Project (ZMERIP) in Kabwe, central Zambia, had set a goal of providing treatment to 7,000 children under the age of 15.
The objective was to lower blood lead levels in 4,000 of these children by over 50% before the June 2022 deadline. To date, the project has screened over 14,000 children, with approximately 1,570 of them receiving DMSA treatment and nutritional supplements.
Research casts a stark light on the situation, indicating that nearly 95% of Kabwe's children residing near the former mine have elevated lead levels, with almost half of them in dire need of medical intervention.
Kabwe town, the provincial capital of Zambia's Central Province, holds a significant legacy of lead and zinc mining. The mine, initially owned by Anglo American and later by Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), operated almost continuously from 1902 to 1994 without addressing the potential hazards of metal pollution.
Dense fumes, laden with lead and other metals, emanated from smelters, contaminating the environment in neighbouring communities such as Makululu, Chowa, Kasanda, Mutwe Wansofu, Waya, Makandanyama, and Katondo Compounds. Even after the mine's closure, scavenging of metal scraps from the mine dumps has persisted in the district.
Testimonies from residents
Derrick Mumbi, a resident of Waya Compound, is a father of 12-year-old twin daughters, who were diagnosed with elevated lead levels in 2020. As a result, they currently struggle with learning difficulties and memory issues.
One of the twins, Busuma, faces difficulties with fluent reading, and her academic performance falls short of expectations. While these children possess a strong passion for learning, their academic achievements disappoint their father.
“The only treatment my kids received was the haemup syrup and HEPS (High Energy Protein Supplement), ... Since then, up to the present day, I have not witnessed any substantial interventions to tackle or mitigate the effects of lead poisoning in our community,” he remarked.
HEPS a food supplement used to combat a specific type of anaemia caused by low iron levels.
Mumbi's frustration underscores the government's perceived inadequacies in addressing Kabwe's lead contamination.
Kabwe's battle against lead poisoning is far from over, riddled with obstacles and unfinished business.
MakanDay also paid a visit to Wilfred Mwamba’s family in Chowa, another compound in Kabwe. In early 2020, two of his grandchildren, aged seven and nine, were found to have elevated blood lead levels. Despite completing treatment, these children continued to exhibit high lead levels in their bodies.
Mwamba said that health officials had suggested remediating his yard by planting grass to reduce lead dust, but due to the burden of exorbitant water bills, his dream of having a lead-free yard remains unattained.
He recalled that his grandchildren were born healthy, but their health deteriorated when they started crawling and playing in lead-contaminated soils.
“The moment they began crawling, they were exposed to lead dust, and we were frequently in and out of the hospital,” he said. They struggled with bronchitis, … even now, the older one is prone to coughs, and one of the boys has become quite forgetful, requiring constant reminders,” said Mwamba.
The Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development attributed the expiry of drugs to the impact of Covid-19, citing restrictions on public gatherings as a key factor.
“The campaign required physical meetings with the community members but due to the ban on public gatherings as one of the Covid 19 health safety guidelines, the project was unable to meet its targeted population,” explained Tobias Musonda, acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mines. “That greatly affected the intake of DMSA.”
Musonda mentioned that the limited shelf life (three years) of the DMSA, which was procured in 2019 and set to expire in 2022, along with other factors, contributed to the challenges in distributing the medication.
“Further, the drug could not be taken to any other part of the country… as it is specifically for lead poisoning treatment, hence resulting in the expiry,” he said.
Faulty testing kits
The project obtained flawed testing kits, namely the Lead Care II and Lead Care Plus Test Kits, manufactured by Meridian Bioscience, Inc.
In May 2021, Magellan Diagnostics, Inc., in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), issued a global recall notice for these test kits due to concerns about their potential to underestimate blood lead levels, potentially leading to inaccurate results.
The Ministry of Mines stated that the discontinuation of these testing kits further hampered the project's ability to carry out DMSA treatment.
In March 2022, President Hakainde Hichilema instructed the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment to establish a technical committee responsible for overseeing comprehensive remediation efforts in Kabwe. However, to date, no interventions have been initiated by the committee.
On August 23, 2023, MakanDay sent a press query to the Ministry of Green Economy, seeking information about the committee's status and activities. As of now, no response has been received.
On September 27, 2023, the Minister of Green Economy and Environment visited Kabwe to inspect mining activities in the area. During the visit, Minister Collins Nzovu expressed concerns about illegal mining activities conducted by certain mining and manufacturing firms, which were causing environmental pollution in Kabwe District.
He specifically addressed issues with Sable Zinc, the license holders at the Kabwe Black Mountain, for their failure to implement a robust dust emission strategy and for leaving ruptured sacks of sulfur exposed on the ground.
The tour also resulted in the suspension of operations at Ferro Alloys Corporation Limited in Kabwe due to multiple environmental violations by the Silicon Manganese Processing Plant.
The Central Province administration has ordered the cessation of all mining activities at the Black Mountain.
Deputy Permanent Secretary Godfrey Chitambala conveyed this decision during a meeting with mining companies held at the Civic Centre on October 2, 2023. All operators at the slag dump were given until October 6, 2023, to complete their operations, with a clear warning that anyone found operating after the deadline would face penalties and equipment seizure.
Old habits persist
Scavenging activities continue at the Black Mountain, the primary source of lead contamination, the Kwasaki dumpsite where mine waste materials accumulated, and the Kaluba mine located at the heart of Waya Compound.
Lead is a highly toxic metal with no safe levels of exposure, causing issues like stunted growth, learning difficulties, memory loss, developmental delays, and various other irreversible health effects.
Children, in particular, are vulnerable as their brains and bodies are still developing, making them more likely to ingest lead dust while playing in the soil and to absorb four to five times as much lead as adults.
The source of contamination, the mine waste at the Black Mountain, has remained unsecured for several years, with dust emissions continuously escaping into the surrounding communities, resulting in severe contamination.
Call for action
On July 20 this year, Juliane Kippenberg, Associate Child Rights director at Human Rights Watch, emphasised the urgent need for the Zambian government to develop a comprehensive remediation programme for the former lead mine in Kabwe.
She suggested that the government should seek technical and financial support for remediation from companies responsible for the pollution, following the 'polluter pays' principle, as well as from donor agencies and governments.
Kippenberg conveyed these remarks in a joint statement with Environment Africa, an environmental organisation based in Kabwe.