Hidden documents reveal the shame of Kabwe’s toxic deaths
By Makanday Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism
Archived documents seen by the B&R pinpoint flaws and boardroom battles within Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) to conceal the real impact of lead poisoning in Kabwe over many years.
Given that lead poisoning has been around for so long – and is responsible for Kabwe being labeled by the UN as one of the 10 most polluted cities on earth – the actions of government in dealing with the poisoning at Kabwe Mine appear to have been reckless in the extreme.
The documents show that for years the people of Kabwe have been kept in the dark about the dangerous environmental mess in which they live and the health problems they suffer as a result. The documents reveal, too, that the rate of lead poisoning became worse when ZCCM, becoming cash-strapped, began to lose its early reputation of being “a responsible corporate citizen” and neglected environmental and industrial health issues.
Details buried within ZCCM show environmental and public health data of children, and certainly adults too, dying as a result of lead poisoning and others being severely affected. Then those who received treatment for ‘lead-out’ had little choice but to return to the same hazardous environment.
Many children died and thousands more were poisoned by lead toxicity during a century of Kabwe Mine’s operation. As well, thousands of miners were equally struck down as each day they risked their health and lives in a poisonous mine, with cynical disregard by the authorities, as the B&R can now reveal after studying documents hidden away for years where the children continued eating and playing in the lead contaminated soils.
Following are some typical examples of children who were affected. All such examples are drawn from ZCCM’s files but the B&R has changed the names of both children and parents. On Friday, 10 November 1993, one-year-old Michael Njobvu was admitted to the mine hospital with advanced symptoms of lead poisoning. He had been suffering from a persistent cough since the age of six months; he then started vomiting and later developed diarrhea. On Saturday, he developed very high temperature and the mother rushed him to a local clinic where he was given malaria treatment.
On Sunday, the following day, Michael appeared at first to be getting better but in the evening he started having fits. This problem persisted for another day, but he was only taken to the mine hospital on Tuesday where he continued receiving treatment for malaria. On Thursday afternoon, treatment for lead poisoning was finally started after results from the laboratory were made available. But Michael died.
His case exemplifies a huge problem across Kabwe of how mothers struggled to cope with lead poisoning.
Other mothers interviewed narrated similar ordeals. Mrs Olidah Nkhoma of house number E67 Kasanda, explained how her daughter, Esther Nkhoma, tended to have frequent diarrhea. She had a poor appetite and was losing weight.
Olidah explained that Esther started having spasms at the age of six months and also had delayed physical and mental development. Esther would have fits between 2 – 3 weeks and usually at night. The fits would last for 10 to 15 minutes during which her eyes would be rolling. Olidah said her child used to eat soil on a daily basis.
The records for 1990 and 1991 show very high lead-blood levels for all children admitted to the hospital. Some children had lead blood levels of up to 400 microgramme per deciliter (μg/dl). On average, children’s blood lead levels in Kabwe exceeded WHO’s recommended levels by 5 to 10 times. Average blood levels of children tested ranged between 38 and 400 μg/dl.
Levels of 70 or above are considered a medical emergency that requires hospitalisation. Levels exceeding 120 μg/dl can cause permanent brain damage and death.
The results are all clear to see: Ainess Kayuni, age 1 yr 11 months, sex f, Hse number L6, date received 14.09.1990, Pb (lead) 120 μg/dl, treatment – call out sent. Irwin
Banda, age 1yr 2 months, sex m, Hse number KK 22, date received 26.9.1990, Pb 158 μg/dl, treatment-call out sent. Tionge Zulu, age 2 yrs 7 months, sex f, Hse number M88, date received 20.11.1990, Pb 400 μg/dl, treatment – admitted.
The list is long and reads like an endless sequence of doom. But beyond this, children born with low levels of lead recorded higher levels a year later. Twin 1, born 9 March 1995 had 8 μg/dl of lead at birth, a year later his level leaped to 70 μg/dl, when he was tested again on 11 March 1996.
Another example is that of baby Richard. At birth, on 27 May 1995, he had 40μg/dl but when another test was carried out on 11 March 1996, his level increased by almost 50%, recording 88μg/dl.
Public health records show no deaths in 1990 as a result of lead poisoning, but a health expert familiar with ZCCM operations points out that the symptoms of lead poisoning mimic other illnesses such as malaria.
“It was, for instance, found that most of the children with high lead levels had at some stage suffered from convulsions but the parents had not sought medical advice or refrained the child from eating soil,” said the source, “believing instead that the child has what is known as umusanfu.” — a condition defined by fits.
Former ZCCM staff said: “It was quite frustrating for us because we knew the problem, but we could not tell the parents.” Public health workers were forbidden from saying that people had this particular problem.
Repeated testing and treatment of children and mine personnel was carried out but appears to have been a weak effort to deal with the lead poisoning. According to a 1995 environmental and health report, “lead poisoning, to an acute stage, could be avoided but under a tactical educational programme on hygiene to mothers”.
Analysts say, this was not effectively done before or after mine closure. Experts gave early warnings of the severity of lead poisoning in children but ZCCM chose not to act on the recommendations. For instance, Dr Clyde Hertzman, an epidemiologist who arrived in Kabwe in 1995 at the behest of ZCCM to assess the lead situation, found that “blood levels in Kasanda and Chowa were the highest I have ever seen in a community sample”.
The late Canadian doctor also observed that Kabwe lead levels were higher than at any of the smelter sites he had investigated on behalf of the World Bank. In communities of Central and Eastern Europe, average blood levels among children were in the range of 25 – 35 μg/dl. But blood levels among children aged under 5 in the two communities of Kabwe were elevated by almost 50 μg/dl.
Lead is no longer mined at Kabwe but it is still there in the soil, and it is still doing untold harm, especially to children. Dr Hertzman pointed out that lead reduces intellectual function and increases various neurobehavioural barriers to learning such as irritability and “distractibility”. The Canadian expert on early childhood learning noted that literature reviews suggest that Intelligence Quotients (IQ) decline by 2-3 points for every 10 μg/dl lead in early childhood.
Experts say that the main objective of a lead control programme in areas like Kabwe should be aimed at the protection of developing fetuses and children under the age of five from exposure.
Kabwe Mine was first owned and mined by Anglo American for close to 80 years. Critics accuse the company of cutting secret deals with government during privatization to avoid cleaning up the area (See B&R October 2014).
In 1970 when the mine was still in the hands of Anglo, a Pro-Kids scavenging at the Kabwe mine dump Professor Lane and Mr C. King were invited to the area to carry out soil analysis at Kasanda Township. Results of this study were kept away from ZCCM as confirmed by a 4 July 1990 letter of Dr J A Charman, who was ZCCM’s industrial environmental advisor (IEA). In it, he asked the chief medical officer (CMO) whether Dr Rawat (the previous CMO at Kabwe Mine) had in his possession results of lead levels for Kasanda.
In its October edition, the B&R inquired why Anglo American did not own up to the killer mess they had created in Kabwe. The company chose to be evasive and gave a terse and defiant response. “Since the nationalisation almost 40 years ago, (we) effectively took these issues into government hands. We are not in a position to comment further about the matter but we certainly don’t believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation”. Other critics accuse the giant mining company of “criminal negligence”.
Observers say ZCCM, a government entity that took over administration of Zambia’s mines after Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s nationalization programme in the late 1960s, only succeeded in worsening the environmental situation. Those observers point out that ZCCM was a huge and inefficient bureaucracy, the main economic driver of the country’s economy, hence making it difficult for the environmental authority to effectively monitor its activities.
The country has been built upon copper revenues that did, and still do, account for up to 80% of export earnings.
The Kabwe miners who were subjected to medical checkups if found with high lead-blood levels, were either redeployed or transferred elsewhere. This did not solve the problem for those who remained or for those who could not recover after their transfer. By 1990, the number of personnel who where “leaded out” dramatically increased.
The numbers were also high during the November to February period of 1990, which was normally a low period as a result of rains suppressing the dust. The environmental taskforce expressed concern at the trend and said “the wet season increase reflected the impact of exposure to the current level of inplant fume and dust” as confirmed by minutes of the committee’s meeting on March 21, 1991.
ZCCM was at the time going through serious financial challenges, which meant environmental issues were put on a back burner.
This started showing as far back as 1985 with its inability to invest in new equipment or replace that which was non-functioning. For example, the electrostatic precipitator, a filtration device that removes fine particles like dust and smoke from the plant, had stopped working in 1985.
Dr Charman, wrote a letter on 12 July 1990 to the CMO of Kabwe Trust Hospital, attributing the increase in lead-blood levels to the non-functioning of the precipitator. The machine was subsequently removed from the discharge circuit in 1988.
Certainly there was a lack of money but political battles too found their way into the boardrooms. For instance, when the safety and health conditions of Kasanda residents, just adjacent to the mine plant, were seriously threatened by enormously high lead levels, experts recommended demolishing the houses. ZCCM on the other hand cited doing so as “politically unacceptable” at the time. The period was 1990 when Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s long stay in power was under threat from the newly formed MMD.
The medical team at Kabwe Trust Hospital had strongly objected to the sale of houses saying they were “wary of declaring the area safe for non-mine occupations”. Dr H. Sensenta, then CMO of Kabwe Trust Hospital, in a letter to the IEA, said the proposed 95% reduction in atmospheric contamination for the area to be safe “seems almost utopian”.
He also raised the issue of cost as a barrier to carrying out tests for everyone including those living outside the mine area. A single test in 1990 was costing K 400, which was regarded as “too expensive” at the time. He pointed out that the occasional high lead value would cause concern among the residents who might probably then demand the tests be done more routinely.
The chosen route for ZCCM to avoid litigation and costs of carrying out these tests was to conceal the facts to those affected. “The populace is ever increasingly becoming aware of environmental pollution and it will need [sic. lead?] only to a plethora of litigations unless the company indemnifies itself before the sale of the township for non-mine occupation,” warned Dr Senseta. The sale of houses was a matter of intense discussion way before the mine closed in 1994.
Soil samples collected in areas close to the mine, such as Chowa and Kasanda, had an average of 3,000 parts per metre (ppm). This was of great concern because it was way beyond the recommended limit of 350 ppm for residential sites.
Despite this, there was no escape route for the people of Kabwe. Previously, it was thought that only giant rape, the vegetable, was absorbing lead in significant quantities, but it was clear with the visit of Dr Hertzman that virtually all vegetables grown in Chowa and Kasanda were “1-2 orders of magnitude higher in lead than is acceptable”.
Environmental experts say perhaps there was a lack of closure from ZCCM about the extent of the environmental damage caused by 100 years of mining. Some say the bureaucratic caveat of this entity has had a number of far-reaching consequences. An example was when the mine closed, the environmental aspect was only given serious attention because it was one of the requirements of the World Bank to release funds for cleaning up the area.
Government succeeded in borrowing US$ 50 million from the World Bank to set up the Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) to clean up environmental impacts in all mining areas after Anglo and others withdrew their investment from the country. Part of that loan was to be used for cleaning up the lead and zinc pollution in Kabwe, where so many people suffered from lead poisoning from the mining operation.
However, a source familiar with both ZCCM and CEP operations said the project was not properly executed due to bureaucratic procedures within government. The estimated capital cost for the first three years of rehabilitation and decommissioning activities for Kabwe was estimated at US$ 4.6 million.
Attempting to dodge addressing the issue appears to be the decided position of government through ZCCM-IH. Concerted efforts by the B&R to speak to them have remained fruitless. The writer wanted, among other things, to know whether ZCCM, under the CEP, achieved its objectives at Kabwe and why the dumpsite has opened up for mining activities, seemingly disregarding the health impact this might have for people living in close proximity. With this revelation, will ZCCM-IH continue with the stance it has taken of being a silent bystander when the lives of children are at stake?
In August last year, the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) gave clearance to London-based Berkeley Mineral Zesources (BMR), owners of the Kabwe lead and copper mine since 2008, to start extracting minerals from the lead-contaminated tailings.
Experts fear that disturbing the almost compact dumpsite will worsen the problem of lead poisoning that has plagued Kabwe for many years and is implicated in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. They argue that ZEMA’s decision to allow Berkeley to go ahead with the project was made without the full knowledge and information, as revealed in the B&R’s earlier story.
The waste dump covers about 1 square kilometre. It contains almost eight million tonnes of heavy metals, mainly of lead and zinc.
The dump has a maximum height of eight metres and is very close to Kasanda Township and the Great North Road. As part of a decommissioning plan, an electric wire fence was to be erected around the place to prevent artisans from carrying out any mining activities there.
Another proposed measure was to not allow people build houses near the dumpsite. Neither of these measures was effectively implemented.
Some legal experts say what happened in Kabwe would attract “liabilities of a criminal nature” if it were in other parts of the world. They say the town is still a high-risk place to allow any mining activities without successfully dealing with past environmental liabilities. Many point to the fact that companies like Anglo would have been compelled to deal with their past environmental messes, the same way government would have done for its 12-year ownership of the mine. Anglo still retained a 30% stake in ZCCM, under its subsidiary, Zambia Copper Investment (ZCI) until the time the mine closed in 1994.
Whether or not there will be justice remains an open question.