Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

(Johannesburg) – Lead exposure around a former lead and zinc mine in Zambia is having disastrous effects on children’s health, Human Rights Watch said today. The Zambian government should promptly clean up the contamination and ensure proper treatment for all who need it.

The 88-page report, “‘We Have to Be Worried’: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia,” examines the effects of lead contamination in Kabwe, a provincial capital, on children’s rights to health, a healthy environment, education, and play. Twenty-five years after the mine closed, children living in nearby townships continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust in their homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and other public spaces. The Zambian government’s efforts to address the environmental and health consequences of the widespread lead contamination have not thus far been sufficient, and parents struggle to protect their children.

“The profits of Kabwe’s mine came at a very high cost to generations of children who have grown up with toxic lead found throughout surrounding townships,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, children’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “While the Zambian government has made several attempts to clean up the lead since the mine closed in 1994, the actual scope of the problem has yet to be addressed.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 residents of townships near the former mine, including the parents or guardians of 60 children who had been tested since the last government cleanup project ended and found to have elevated lead levels. Human Rights Watch found that government-run health facilities in Kabwe currently have no chelation medicine for treating lead poisoning or lead test kits in stock, and no health database has been established to track cases of children who died or were hospitalized because of high lead levels. Education for children with disabilities or learning barriers is a country-wide challenge in Zambia, and in Kabwe, the disability screening process does not even investigate lead-related causes.

Human Rights Watch has engaged the Zambian government, including the Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development, in dialogue throughout its investigation, and invited the government to participate in the news conference to release the report. On August 12, 2019, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Mines sent Human Rights Watch a letter stating that the organization would not be allowed to release the report at an event in Lusaka. Rather than engage with Human Rights Watch over its substantive findings, the letter attacked the report as an “attempt to discredit the government.”

“The real threat to the government’s credibility lies in its own indefensible efforts to suppress our findings,” Naples-Mitchell said. “Instead of attacking its critics, the Zambian government should articulate a clear plan for living up to its responsibilities in Kabwe.”

Children are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to ingest lead dust when playing in the soil, their brains and bodies are still developing, and they absorb at least four times as much lead as adults. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and even death. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.

“I’ve never attended a meeting about lead poisoning. Never ever,” a staff member at a local hospital told Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard when you’re not tracking. It’s absent in our documents. It’s just not there.”

From 2003 to 2011, the World Bank funded a Zambian government project intended to clean up lead in affected townships in Kabwe and to provide testing and treatment for children.

But about 76,000 people continue to live in contaminated areas. In a 2018 study, researchers estimated that over 95 percent of children in the townships surrounding the lead mine have elevated blood lead levels and that about half of them require medical intervention.

Human Rights Watch found that the Kabwe mine’s waste dumps remain, exposing nearby residential areas to windblown lead dust and threatening community health. The government has neither removed the waste piles nor sealed the site, both of which have been done elsewhere in the world to treat affected sites.

Ongoing small-scale mining poses additional health risks. And plans by private companies to process the mineral waste at the site will present further risks without strong regulation and monitoring.

In December 2016, the government began a five-year World Bank-funded project to clean up lead-contaminated neighborhoods and conduct new rounds of testing and treatment. Government officials and World Bank representatives told Human Rights Watch that the government intended to start the remediation and health components later in 2019. In a July 2019 letter to Human Rights Watch, the government also indicated that it does not have enough resources to address the full scale of the contamination.

The project includes plans for testing and treating at least 10,000 children, pregnant women, mothers, and other individuals, which will be overseen by the district medical officer in Kabwe. Given the total number of residents in lead-affected areas, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the project will not reach all affected children and adults.

The Zambian government should adopt a lasting and comprehensive plan to address the impact of lead contamination, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that it provides for long-term containment or removal of lead hazards and that it addresses the full scope of the contamination in affected areas, including homes, schools, health centers, and roads.

Initial rounds of testing and treatment under the new project should give priority to those who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, including children under age 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women, Human Rights Watch said. Ultimately, all children and adults in Kabwe should be eligible for testing and treatment. All treatment, especially chelation therapy, should coincide with cleaning up the patient’s home environment. Otherwise they will be re-exposed to lead.

The government should also deepen its efforts to address lead-associated disabilities or learning barriers, given the likelihood that these affect children in Kabwe, Human Rights Watch said. Schools should ensure that they adequately respond to the needs of many children facing learning disabilities or barriers potentially connected to lead poisoning, and that they provide the needed accommodations and individual learning support.

If small-scale mining is to continue, the government should ensure that operations are licensed, regularly monitored, and only conducted in accordance with mining regulations and the law. The government should scrutinize any future waste processing project for potential human rights and environmental impact.

“Thousands of children in Kabwe developed lead poisoning because they grew up in contaminated neighborhoods,” Naples-Mitchell said. “The government should adopt a lasting solution, assure a better future for the children of Kabwe, and clean up the lead.”