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Friday, 9 August, 2002, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Zambia's poisonous past
Kabwe mine shell
The mines in Kabwe are largely obsolete
Zambia's mining industry was the engine for economic growth, but now the country is counting the environmental cost.

Activists told the BBC's Richard Lee how children in the town of Kabwe could be putting themselves at risk - not from attack or disease but from lead poisoning.

There is a lead problem in Kabwe

James Kalowa, ZCCM
"I have been unable to find similar blood lead levels to those in Kabwe anywhere else in the world," claimed Kapumpe Valentine Musakanya, who runs the Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation.

"The situation has improved slightly since the mine closed down but thousands of people are still being affected and an enormous amount still needs to be done."


After Kabwe's former lead mine and smelter operation closed in 1994, poverty levels soared and thousands of Kabwe's inhabitants left in search of work.

Kabwe, Zambia
While many people now refer to it as a ghost town, some believe that Kabwe continues to be haunted by lead contamination.

Identifying soil samples taken from various parts of the town, environmentalists claimed that the lead concentrations found were far in excess of internationally recognised safety levels.

Guidelines suggest that the lead content of soil in residential areas should not be more than 400 parts per million, but some tests conducted in Kabwe in 1995 recorded lead levels of between 4,000ppm and 21,000ppm.

"There is certainly a serious problem in Kabwe because residential areas are situated so close to the mining operations and because water supplies have been contaminated," said Peter Sinkambe, executive director of Citizens for a Better Environment.


High levels of lead can result in a range of medical complaints from nausea and vomiting to kidney damage.

Lead poisoning is also believed to be connected to mental retardation and, in extreme cases, lead poisoning can kill.

Kabwe mine mountain
The main task now is a clean up operation
According to Mr Musakanya the levels are so high that many people must have died from over-exposure to lead.

He claimed that many lead-related deaths are often attributed to malaria and HIV because the symptoms are similar.

ZCCM, once the company that managed the mine, is now involved in trying to clean up the environmental mess left by the mining industry across Zambia.

Whilst refuting such claims, James Kalowa of ZCCM Investments Holdings PLC, recognised that there is a problem.

"I have not come across any information that people are dying or have died of lead poisoning in Kabwe," he said.

"Our preliminary studies indicate that there is a lead problem in Kabwe but we will have to wait until the results of our systematic survey before we know the full extent of the health risks and what measures need to be put in place."


It is hoped that the current official study - which is part of the broader Copperbelt Environment Project and which was initiated by ZCCM-IH and the government - will provide a better assessment of the danger and the best course of action to pursue.

However, although the government and the international community do appear keen to try and resolve the problem, the process is too slow for people like Musakanya.

"We have to start educating the people now," he said.

"They have been kept in the dark for too long and without a proper awareness campaign, no progress will be made. They must be taught that they have to change their behaviour."


The Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation have begun an educational campaign, handing out pamphlets about the effects of lead poisoning and how to prevent it.

But they recognise that in the long term, major programmes need to be undertaken.

The dumps need to be covered in vegetation or capped with concrete to prevent dust being blown across the town, and medical staff need to be properly trained and equipped to deal with the problem.

All of which will require vast sums of time and, most importantly, money.

"We are talking about tens of millions of US dollars," claimed Mr Musakanya.

"And even if we get that, Kabwe won't return to normality for decades."

The full version of this article originally appeared in BBC Focus On Africa Magazine.

See also:

25 Jul 02 | Africa
24 Dec 01 | Africa
12 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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