Kabwe's Legacy of Lead
Kabwe, the second largest city in Zambia with a population of 300,000, is located about 130km north of the nation's capital, Lusaka. It is one of six towns situated around the "Copperbelt", once Zambia's thriving industrial base. In 1902, rich deposits of potentially dangerous lead were discovered in the mine and smelter located in the center of the town. Ore veins with lead concentrations as high as 20 percent have been mined deep into the earth and a smelting operation was set up to process the ore. Mining and smelting operations were running almost continuously up until 1994 without the government addressing the potential danger of lead. The mine and smelter, owned by the now privatized Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines, is no longer operating but has left a city with poison and toxicity from hazardous concentrations of lead in the soil and water.
While in operation, there were no pollution laws regulating emissions from the mine and smelter plant. In turn, air, soil, and vegetation were all subjected to contamination, and ultimately, over some decades, millions of human lives were also effected. Some recent findings reveal the extent to which lead--one of the most potent neurotoxins known to man--has effected the health of Kabwe citizens. In the U.S., normal blood levels of lead are less than 10 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter). Symptoms of acute poisoning occur at blood levels of 20 and above, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, and leading to muscle spasms and kidney damage. Levels of over ten are considered unhealthy and levels in excess of 120 can often lead to death. In Kabwe, blood concentrations of 300 ug/dL have been recorded in children and records show average blood levels of children range between 60 and 120 ug/dL.
Children that play in the soil and young men that scavenge the mines for scraps of metal are most susceptible to lead produced by the mine and smelter. A small waterway runs from the mine to the center of town and had been used to carry waste from the once active smelter. For years there were no restrictions on the waterway, and in some instances local children use it for bathing. In addition to water exposure, workers are frequently exposed to lead by inhaling the dust that accumulated in their own backyards.
Kabwe's decades of contamination require a complex clean-up strategy.
Blacksmith has helped Kabwe's environment by establishing a local NGO,
Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation (KERF), designed to bring educational and healthcare services into each community. At
Blacksmith's urging, the World Bank provided a $15 million grant for
cleanup purposes, and subsequent funding also arrived from the Nordic
Development Fund. These are extraordinary results that demonstrate
that Blacksmith's initiatives can be leveraged to enable very large
contributions from major global institutions for remediation of serious
pollution related problems.
With Blacksmith providing technical consultancy and resources, the government's Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) has worked to determine the magnitude, sources, and pathways of human lead exposure, and to improve public awareness in order to end future contamination. In 2003 they began educational outreach to inform the public of behavioral and hygiene changes that would reduce their risk of lead exposure; at times these have proven to be as simple as preventing children from playing in the dirt, and rinsing dust off plates before meals. CEP has also seen the critical importance of empowering locals with better access to clean water, which will free them from reliance on tainted sources. Some areas of Kabwe require drastic remediation in which some entire neighborhoods may need to relocate.
The CEP is implementing a comprehensive program on risk communication and humanitarian development. The CEP has been developing an intensive community outreach program since its inception, aimed at raising awareness about lead and lead exposure. This program also strengthens local community organizations and their ties with the government initiative. Working closely with the local authorities, 10 community development staff have been attached to the CEP, and its actions are based on a "community facilitator model," where community facilitators or volunteers from each effected area are closely involved in the project implementation. These community facilitators have been carefully trained, and they serve as link between the CEP and the communities.
For more information, please visit www.cepzambia.org.zm
Blacksmith must continue and expand its successful 4-year-program of raising awareness. Kabwe Lead Education Program is now being implemented in the schools, where the CEP is working closely with the Ministry of Education to reach the more than 20,000 children in the areas significantly polluted with lead. This program revolves around a localized curriculum about lead dangers and proper safety precautions. Another aspect of the program, the "Green-is-Clean Campaign", promotes planting grass in order to bind the topsoil together and reduce potential lead exposure through loose soil and dust.
A medical management program has also been developed and is being implemented to reduce the elevated blood lead levels in children. In support of all these efforts, the CEP has also embarked on a Water Project to provide locals with safer water sources. The project is also developing playgrounds and parks in all impacted communities that, when completed, will be safe and lead-free play areas for children. Finally, two Public Information Centers have been built and more are slated for construction. These centers will serve as educational and community outreach headquarters.