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Zambia must treat children suffering from lead poisoning, clean up former mine area - UN experts

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Download logo

Zambia must immediately provide medical treatment to thousands of children suffering from lead poisoning, and must take swift steps to clean up areas contaminated by residue from what was once the country’s largest lead mine, UN experts said today.

“More than 25 years after the Kabwe mine and smelter closed, it is scandalous that some 300,000 people still have to live on toxic soil,” the experts said. “Schools, playgrounds, homes and back yards all have high lead levels, so residents are being poisoned on a huge scale, and children are the most vulnerable.”

Kabwe, the capital of Zambia's Central Province, was founded on the discovery of lead and zinc deposits during colonial times and was home to lead mining and smelting from 1904 to 1994, when the Government closed the mine. Over three million tons of tailings (waste from the mining process), about 2.5 million tons of slag (waste from the smelter) and other waste remain in the area.

“With every passing day of lead exposure, children’s health is being damaged and their futures are being compromised,” the experts said. “It is critical to provide specialized treatment to all children and adults who require it.”

The World Health Organisation has concluded there is no safe level of lead in human blood. In Kabwe's afflicted townships, over 95% of children have levels of 10 µg/dL and above, meaning they are at exposed to serious risks and harms. Last year about 2,500 Kabwe children, tested under a World Bank project, were found to have levels of 45 μg/dL and higher, meaning they require immediate chelation therapy, the most common treatment for lead poisoning.

Lead attacks the central nervous system, causing numbness, anaemia, convulsions, brain damage and even death. Women can suffer miscarriages and stillbirths. “Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects and disabilities, particularly affecting the development of the brain and the nervous system,” the experts said.

“It is also essential that children are not returned to the contaminated environment once they have completed chelation treatment,” they said. This means Zambia must clean up all residential areas completely and permanently. “The Government is still failing to fully address the lead pollution crisis in Kabwe and ensure sustained testing and treatment for Kabwe’s residents,” the experts said. 

The experts emphasized that states and mining companies have respective duties and responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to protect, respect and remedy business-related human rights abuses.

Some progress was made under a World-Bank-funded project that started in 2016. However, the project does not address the source of the contamination, Kabwe mine’s waste dumps, nor does it entail cleaning up the affected townships in a comprehensive manner.

New sources of lead pollution are appearing in the area as the Zambian Government issues licences for small-scale mines, now opening alongside unlicensed mines.

The experts said authorities have not tackled health dangers from small-scale mining which picked up after the main mine closed in 1994.

“Lead poisoning in Kabwe adds up to an assault on the right to life with dignity, the right to health and the right to a clean environment,” the experts said, “and we urge Zambia to take responsibility and do more so that the children of the country are ensured health, wellbeing and a decent future.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

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