Residents of Owino Uhuru settlement, near Mombasa, Kenya, protest against a lead smelter that opened next to the settlement that killed workers, poisoning residents, and polluted the community, in November 2013. © 2013 Norbert Allan

In a victory for environmental health, last week, a Kenyan Court awarded $1.3 billion Ksh (USD12 million) to residents of Owino Uhuru, a suburb of Mombasa, for damages related to pollution from a nearby lead smelter that recycled lead-acid batteries. The court ruled that government agencies responsible for enforcing regulations at the plant must pay compensation within 90 days and the site be cleaned up within four months.

This case is a hard-fought and well-deserved victory for workers and the 3,000 residents of Owino Uhuru who, through community activist Phyllis Omido, continued to seek justice for harm to their health.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch visited Owino Uhuru as part of a series of investigations into toxic lead exposure in Kosovo, China, Nigeria, Zambia, Thailand, and elsewhere. Owino Uhuru residents had told Human Rights Watch that since the facility began operations in 2007, their children seemed sick and community members described health problems consistent with lead poisoning. Blood tests performed in the community found high levels of lead.  The smelter closed in March 2014 amid growing public opposition but left a legacy of contamination and lifelong health effects for many. The Kenyan government found the smelter violated numerous laws, endangering the health of workers and residents, but did little to remedy the situation.

Lead is highly toxic and children are particularly vulnerable. It can cause brain, liver, kidney, and neurological damage, as well as permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities. There is no safe exposure level and the World Health Organization identifies it as one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern globally. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimated that globally, lead exposure accounted for over one million premature deaths around the world in 2017.

Lead-acid batteries are still common in cars and to store renewable energy. Battery recyclers can play an important role in ensuring a continuous supply of lead without new mining. But without proper regulations, enforcement, and corporate responsibility, these facilities can have devastating health impacts.

The Kenyan government does not have a great track record in paying out court-ordered compensation, so this story may not yet be over, but this landmark decision sends a clear and important message to polluters and government officials of the potential costs and liabilities of ignoring the human health impacts of unregulated discharge of toxins.