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For five years, an illegal lead smelter has polluted a small Kenyan community, the toxic lead poisoning children and even killing smelter workers. As of yesterday, Kenya’s government is finally taking action.
Celestine had worried for years about her son Kelvin, who had chronic fatigue, sluggishness, and joint pains. Celeste knew the culprit of her son’s suffering: lead poisoning. She also knew it came from the smelter. Celestine and Kelvin weren’t alone. Other children living near the smelter in Owino Uhuru, near Mombasa, were also ill. Even Kenya’s government knew the smelter could be a serious problem. Shortly after it opened, the government issued a report that brought up serious concerns about the plant’s operations and its impact on the health of its workers and neighbors.
Still, nothing was done.
Residents took matters into their own hands with the help of Phyllis Omido, a former office worker in the smelter who realized early on that the smelter was causing grave harm to the workers. Together, Omido and the residents wrote numerous letters to Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority and the Public Health Agency and organized to have children tested for elevated blood lead levels. They also organized peaceful protests on the streets of Mombasa.
These efforts were met with harassment and beatings by thugs, and ultimately arrests by the Mombasa police. Despite having the law on their side, the residents’ efforts fell on deaf ears, all while workers died and children became sicker.
In late June, Human Rights Watch released a video documenting the tragic situation of the Owino Uhuru community. Omido spoke powerfully at our news conference and members of the community traveled to Nairobi to tell their story to journalists. The Kenyan media reported widely on the issue.
Finally, the Kenyan government took notice. Yesterday, members of the Kenyan Senate Health Committee visited the community, spoke with residents, toured the smelter, and pledged to do lead testing on residents and the environment within the next two weeks.
The government’s decision is a terrific development. But it doesn’t end here. In addition to recognizing the plight of the Owino Uhuru community, the government needs to ensure that the rights of its citizens, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health, are protected. Kenya has strong environmental laws – going forward, it should enforce them.