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The Young Activists Fighting Lead Pollution in Zambia

Group’s Video Appeal for Government Clean-up and Healthcare

View of a former mine pit, now flooded, at the old mine site in Kabwe. In the foreground is an area where small-scale miners still work today. © 2019 Diane McCarthy for Human Rights Watch
A new video just published by Zambian environmental activists confirms Human Rights Watch’s research on how a former industrial lead mine in their hometown of Kabwe has left a legacy of severe lead contamination. The youth activists, who work with the nongovernmental organization Environment Africa to raise awareness of lead pollution and push for change, launched the video on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is great to see young activists claiming their rights to a healthy environment and to information which helps keep them safe, as protected under the convention, which Zambia ratified in 1991. In the video, Kabwe Youth Network activists take the viewer to the former lead mine and affected neighborhoods, including a soccer field, schools, and homes, describing the effects of the lead poisoning. The government’s clean-up efforts, they explain, are “not enough.”

I recently visited Kabwe to investigate how lead pollution harms children living there; we published our findings in a report. Homes, schools, and play areas are still contaminated with lead dust – 25 years after the mine’s closure. Medical studies confirm that about half of the children living in the area have extremely high lead levels in their blood and need medical treatment. But the town’s public health facilities had no lead testing kits or medicine to treat lead poisoning when we were there.

No level of lead is safe for children: lead can result in stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, convulsions, and even coma and death. The Zambian government recently began a World Bank-funded program to clean up neighborhoods and provide health care, but it has been very slow to get off the ground and is limited in scope. 

“Youth can be vulnerable, but the same youth can also be an agent of change,” says one of the activists in the video. I can’t think of a better motto for the 30th anniversary of the child rights convention. As children and young people – from the halls of the UN to the dusty neighborhoods near Zambia’s most famous lead mine – speak out, it’s time for governments to listen and to act.

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