A permanent brain-damaging health condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease has hit workers at Indian-owned Southern Africa Ferro Alloys Limited (SAFAL), in Serenje, central Zambia. SAFAL has a customer base in Europe, America, Russia and South East Asia, according to the company website.
Close to twenty manganese miners at the mine have been diagnosed with what health experts are calling “manganese disease” due to an alleged exposure to manganese.
Manganese disease symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson’s. They include trembling, stiffness, slow motor movement and potentially-severe depression, anxiety and hostility.
SAFAL is owned by a Zambian and three Indian nationals - Ajay Badrinaraya Shastry, Vijay Agarwal, Madhav Dube and Nikhilesh Singh. The Zambian is Pankaj Jain, according to the Patents and Company Registration Agency (PACRA) documents.
The company runs a manganese processing unit in a small isolated village settlement called Kanona, some 50 kilometres west of Serenje town.
Village residents employed by the company are battling a strange neurological condition, suspected to be the result of exposure to manganese dust or fumes.
Exposure to manganese
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continued exposure to manganese can damage the lungs, liver, and kidneys. The level of exposure depends upon the dose, duration, and work being done.
The Ministry of health has not responded to MakanDay’s request for comment on the disease that is threatening the lives of many residents in Mkushi and Serenje, were manganese is a major source of income.
This raises questions about the safety of workers, especially those who work in hazardous working conditions. It also raises questions about the Occupational Health and Safety Institution (OHSI) in making sure workers are safe at work.
The OHSI is yet to respond to a set of questions from MakanDay emailed to the headquarters in Ndola, including a question on whether it is aware of what is happening at SAFAL.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2010, which establishes the OHSI, also provides for the protection of workers, “against risks to health or safety arising from, or in connection with, the activities of persons at work”.
Testimonies from the families
Young and able-bodied miners relegated their interview duties to their wives and families who laid bare their struggles to the MakanDay journalist who spent time in the area.
Keegan Mwelwa, 37, a father with four children worked for SAFAL for close to eight years as a batcher. He was the first employee to be diagnosed with the disease in November 2021.
According to a medical report from the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) accessed by MakanDay, Mwelwa’s manganism is due to “toxic accumulation and deposition of manganese in the body tissues, primarily the brain, because of high exposure from external sources”.
Because Mwelwa is in a state where he is unable to speak, his wife, Yvonne Kunda, a vegetable trader, told MakanDay that her husband’s health condition has led to loss of memory, slowness in movement and speech, and continuous shaking.
“The medical doctor at UTH (the University Teaching Hospital) advised that all the medicals for my husband had been done and that there was no need for further tests,” she said.
Dr Dickson Munkombwe, neurology registrar at UTH, who interpreted Mwelwa’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), said the results, showed “signal changes and abnormalities in some areas of the extra pyramidal system that is involved in regulating movement, mostly involuntary and posture”.
He explained that the abnormalities are the cause of Mwelwa’s disabilities, such as slow movement and speech, among others.
Another patient is 21-year-old Fredrick Mutale, who moved to Kanona from Kasama in Northern Province in search of greener pastures, after stopping school in grade eight.
Mutale’s cousin, Joseph Mukuka, narrated how his relative is now unable to speak, after developing a strange health condition. Mukuka disclosed that his cousin began work as a batcher at SAFAL in June 2020.
“Mutale was normal, with no disabilities, but in April 2022 last year, he developed the strange disease,” Mukuka told MakanDay.
“As you can see,” he said while pointing at his cousin, “his movements and speech are slow and he cannot do most of the things for himself. he complains of headaches and cough among others,” Mukuka explained.
He said the family is still waiting for a medical report from UTH, so that they can know exactly what Mutale is suffering from.
Pathias Mukosha, who worked for four years at the company, is also a victim of the disease. During the interview with his wife Eunice, Mukosha began shaking uncontrollably.
“This is what happens to my husband,” she said, pointing at her husband. “He has a speech problem and complains of headaches and coughs a lot.”
Eunice told MakanDay that, like Mutale, they are waiting for a final report from UTH to determine the problem.
Symptomatic workers get fired
Another former employee for eight years, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was fired after the company conducted general medical tests for its employees.
The 46-year-old is a father of six children. He explained that he experiences loss of strength in his knees and swelling of the stomach, including coughing. He too, was not provided with a medical report after the tests.
“Seven of my workmates and I were laid off in November last year,” he said.
He also accused the company of failing to provide workers with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), adding that between 2014 to 2021 they were using disposable and washable including masks.
Although SAFAL confirmed the presence of the disease among 18 of its workers, it however denied it was as a result of exposure to manganese.
Plant manager Bijeesh Mangara Vijayan told MakanDay that the company is doing everything possible, including carrying out investigations with the help of UTH, to establish what the workers are suffering from.
He told MakanDay that as a company they started receiving reports of the disease from the workers in September 2022.
“The affected workers are those working inside the plant. UTH is carrying out investigations to ascertain what the problem is,” he said.
“As a company, we need to know if they started working with the strange disease or they got the disease while working for the company.”
He revealed that the company is still paying salaries in full “until we find out exactly what the workers are suffering from”. He said the Workers Compensation Board will come on board to compensate the affected miners, depending on the UTH findings.
Vijayan denied accusations that the company is polluting the nearby Tazara community, adding that the company follows all the regulations set by Zambia Environmental management Agency (ZEMA).
So why are people feeling hopeless that their cries are not being heard? MakanDay has sent a query to ZEMA to ask these questions, but a response is yet to be received.
According to the company website, SAFAL pioneered the manganese processing movement in Zambia when it was established in March 2011.
It says the company was the first manganese processing unit in the country and has paved the way for the establishment of similar units, currently in excess of 15 nationwide.
With a customer base located in Europe, America, Russia, South East Asia and the UAE, according to their website, SAFAL has successfully established its reputation as a hub of manganese processing in Zambia.
Complaints by ex-employees
Former SAFAL employees have also complained of poor working conditions and pollution.
“The dust films and smoke is affecting the workers and residents at the nearby Tazara compound,” said a former employee.
“The company constructed new chambers to reduce the smoke pollution late last year after the workers had a three day protest because of our friends who were sick.”
Another former employee also disclosed to Makanday that in late 2021 and early 2022, the company introduced a certain manganese powder, which has high quality grade manganese, but that the production of the powder was stopped in October 2022, because of the rising number of workers who were getting sick.
He said when the new manganese powder was introduced, they used to mix it with cement and a bit of water to produce “ball-like” end products.
“Last year, the company had a challenge with the stock for cement, and they stopped making the manganese balls for smelting, and instead they started using the manganese powder directly in the furnace.
He added, “the powder produced a lot of dust from the batching process, up to the furnace. There was a lot of smoke, that is how the workers started developing a strange disease, and the numbers started increasing.”