Kabwe, Africa's most toxic city

Kabwe, home to 300,000 people, is Africa's most polluted city and has gained the dubious distinction of being ranked as the world's fourth most polluted site, according to a survey published by the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based organisation monitoring pollution in the developing world.

In this toxic environment, Christine Mupika, barefooted and without any protective clothing, is just one of many scavenging Kabwe's open quarries and old dump sites near the city centre every day for metals, coal and zinc to sell by the roadside. Her high-risk occupation earns her about US$0.25 for 25kg of zinc and around $1.25 for the same quantity of coal; income derived from scrap metal sales depends on her bargaining abilities.

"If I don't work here, then I won't feed my five children at home," said Mupika, 52, whose husband died in 1995. "Much of my income comes from coal - sometimes I can sell two bags in one day, but zinc takes a bit longer to find a customer and it is not even profitable."

Kabwe, Zambia's second largest city, grew up around the 1902 discovery of lead deposits about 150km north of the capital, Lusaka, and became Africa's largest lead mine. Veins of lead ore, with concentrations as high as 20 percent, were mined deep into the ground; smelting operations were established nearby and ran almost continuously until 1994.

Topping the list of the world's most toxic sites is Chernobyl in the Ukraine, which suffered the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986, followed by the Russian city of Dzerzhinsk, where chemical weapons were produced during the Cold War. Third on the list is the Dominican Republic town of Haina, where emissions from an old car battery smelter have caused almost the entire population of 85,000 to suffer from lead poisoning. Kabwe is ranked fourth.

"This smelting process [in Kabwe] was unregulated ... and these smelters released heavy metals in dust particles, which settled on the ground in the surrounding area. The mine and smelter are no longer operating, but have left a city poisoned from debilitating concentrations of lead in the soil and water from slag heaps that were left as reminders of the smelting and mining era. In one study, the dispersal of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc in soil extended over a 20km circumference from the smelting and mining processes. The soil contamination levels of all four metals are higher than those recommended by the World Health Organisation," the institute said in its survey.

Richard Fuller, director of the Blacksmith Institute, said environmental problems caused up to 20 percent of deaths in developing countries, but "the worst problem is the damage they do to children's development, and that damages the future of the countries."

Lead is one of the most potent neurotoxins and is particularly harmful to children and infants. It leads to attention deficit disorders and hearing impairment, and affects a child's mental development; in pregnant women it can cross the placenta and put an unborn baby at risk.

According to The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals, "Almost all children born in industrialised countries between 1960 and 1980 were exposed to substantial amounts of lead from petrol that could have reduced the number of children with far above-average intelligence [IQ scores above 130 points] by more than 50 percent, and might likewise have increased the number with IQ scores below 70."

Medical experts say the lead levels in children should not exceed 15 microgrammes per decilitre, but lead concentrations of up to 300 microgrammes per decilitre have been recorded for children in Kabwe, with average levels in the blood ranging from between 60 and 120 microgrammes per decilitre.

Matildah Muyunda, who cares for her two grandchildren, told IRIN: "My two children last month developed a terrible skin rash and blisters which looked like chicken pox. They could not eat for two days and when I took them to the hospital, I was told it was something to do with lead poisoning, but they were not given any medication until they [rash and blisters] disappeared on their own after some two weeks."

Soil testing in Kabwe revealed that lead levels around the closed smelter were as high as 245,000 microgrammes per decilitre [24.5 percent] while samples taken from residential backyards and surrounding areas have up to 38,000 microgrammes per decilitre [3.8 percent] lead content. The recommended safety limit for an industrial site is a maximum of 2,000 microgrammes per decilitre [0.2 percent].

In Kabwe, the main cause of lead poisoning is believed to be inhalation or ingestion of airborne particles, dust from gardens and general play areas, food grown in contaminated soils, and dust created as people search the mine dumps for scrap metals.

"On three occasions I have been diagnosed with lumps in my chest, which doctors say are due to lead poisoning, and they always advise me to stop working here, but no one has ever given me any money to do something else," said Mupika. "How do they honestly expect me to survive if I stop mining? I do this because I have no other means."

Justine Mukosa of the Environmental Council of Zambia, a government watchdog, told IRIN, "We are having to deal with a lot of pollution cases at the moment - not just in Kabwe but also across the Copperbelt Province because when most of these mines were opened, there were no stringent laws targeted at protecting the environment."

Environmental impact and assessment legislation compelling all mining companies in Zambia to adhere to environmental safeguards was introduced in 1997 - three years after the Kabwe mine closed.

"Somehow, the Kabwe lead pollution provided some insight into the extent of damage that mining activities were having on the environment, and it played a major role in the formation of the Act. But it is very difficult to work out a lasting solution to the problem because of its historic nature, unless it is for the new mines that are just coming up," Mukosa said.

Kabwe's lead mine was run without pollution controls by the government-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) for most of its life before it became financially unviable and the smelter closed down.

An open canal that used to carry toxic waste from the lead mine pits and smelter when the mine was in operation passes through the three sprawling townships of Chowa, Kasanda and Katondo.

During the 2002 rainy season the canal flooded, spilling "several years" of toxic waste, silt and rubbish into the neighbouring communities. The vegetation, dusty soils and waterways are severely contaminated with heavy metals.

Yet scores of barefooted children play in the dusty soil of the three most affected communities. "It is hard to change attitudes - we tell people not to allow children to play in the soil or, better still, to start greening their surroundings, but we are not seeing positive results as yet," said Mujinga Kamoto, an assistant manager at the Katondo information centre run by ZCCM Investment Holdings to increase awareness of lead poisoning in the area.

Abel Kabalo, director of health in Kabwe district, declined to comment.

A medical doctor at the government-run Kabwe Mine Hospital, who preferred to remain anonymous, said all the health institutions in the area were ill-equipped to handle lead poisoning cases.

"Lead poisoning is a very serious problem here but it has not been given due attention. For example, even if almost on a daily basis we receive cases of severe anaemia, vomiting, kidney damage and brain damage, which are all linked to lead poisoning, none of us has undergone any specialised training in this field, and all government hospitals here don't have a single testing machine for lead poisoning. We borrow from a private clinic which has one, in times of emergencies."

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