KABWE, Zambia – Dump trucks carrying tons of lead deposits barrel down dirt roads; ores spilling over the sides just metres away from children playing on grassless yards. Nearby, smelters refining lead ore and other minerals spew black fumes into the air.
This is the scene every day in Kabwe, a city in central Zambia that is regularly referred to as Africa’s most toxic city.
Kabwe’s legacy of lead mining has turned the city into the world’s fourth most polluted site. According to a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Kabwe is one of the world’s top 50 “sacrificial zones” – communities where residents live near “the most intensely polluting and dangerous facilities, including open-pit mines, smelters, petroleum refineries.” These zones, the report says, represent some of the most “extreme examples of environmental injustices.”
A century of lead mining and processing in Kabwe has poisoned generations of residents who have grown up here. Despite efforts to remediate the contamination, about 50,000 people are reportedly still at risk from airborne particles laden with lead residue, while eating food grown in lead-contaminated soil. The city has a population of over 200,000 and almost every child living near a former mine site has dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
Kabwe ran a lead mine from 1904, after British colonialists found rich deposits of lead and zinc in the late 19th century. The mine became the largest of its kind in Africa, generating billions of dollars in profits. As in many parts of the mineral-rich southern African region, mining became the backbone of Zambia’s economy. After gaining independence from the British, the Zambian government moved to partially nationalise the mines in 1969, followed by full nationalisation in 1974. The state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mining company (ZCCM) continued to operate the Kabwe mine, but with little by way of regulations to adequately contain harmful emissions.
The mismanagement of materials leftover from separating the lead from the ore, known as tailings, along with the by-products of smelting, known as slag, led to high amounts of pollutants leaching into the ground, water and air over the course of decades.
In the mid-1970s, the price of lead in global markets dropped; the mineral was being phased out for use in many appliances. Eventually, the Kabwe mine became financially unsustainable for ZCCM to run. In 1994, the mine finally shut down and the level of contamination would gain more scrutiny.
“In 1994, I started by trying to ascertain what was the extent of the lead poisoning and possible community contamination,” Kapumpe-Valentine Musakanya, the then-head of ZCCM's contamination investigation program, told VICE World News. “I advised the mining company, we couldn’t walk away. We couldn’t just close up the mine and walk away. There was a legacy issue we had to resolve.”
Musakanya organised teams to test for lead in the soil as well as in people’s blood.
Health experts have long considered a blood-lead level reading of 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) as being something to worry about. But what Musakanya saw in Kabwe was staggering – children with blood lead levels upwards of 80 µg/dL. Records have shown blood-lead measurements reaching fatal levels of 200 and even 300 µg/dL in children in Kabwe. The average blood-lead concentrations found in communities near the decommissioned mine ranges from 50 to 120 µg/dL.
More recently, the World Health Organisation has said that there is no known safe blood-lead concentration. The heavy metal is one of the most potent neurotoxins known to humans, and blood-lead concentrations as low as 5 µg/dL may be associated with behavioural and learning challenges in children. The Centers for Disease Control has used reference points of 3.5 and 5 µg/dL, far lower than seen in Kabwe.
“What shocks me is that over the course of time, the knowledge was there,” Musakanya said. “Political and commercial matters took precedence over public health,” he says.
Kabwe struggled economically when the mine closed in 1994, as other industries soon followed.
Nowadays, cash-strapped men and women sneak into abandoned mine and quarry sites to extract lead ores from old tailings to sell. As a result, while industrial lead mining has ended in Kabwe, illegal and artisanal mining and mineral processing continues to expose residents to contaminants.
Companies still run machines that blow noxious emissions into the atmosphere. A 100 ft-tall heap of millions of tons of waste looms over the landscape near the old mine. Known as the Black Mountain, the conspicuous dump site remains one of the main sources of lead pollution.
Over the years, several environmental organisations have tried to intervene. In the latest attempt to tackle Kabwe’s contamination, in March 2022, Zambia’s president set up a technical committee made up of environmental and civil society organisations. In 2016, The World Bank, through its ongoing Mining and Environmental Remediation and Improvement Project (ZMERIP), pledged $65 million (£53 million, €63 million) to carry out remediation and offer economic opportunities to locals. But residents and activists say little has come out of the project.
Gideon Ndalama, the government’s ZMERIP national coordinator, told VICE World News that the project does not tackle air pollution. “We do not have that mandate,” Ndalam said. But he points out that under the project, the topsoil at a school near the old mine site was improved, significantly lowering the lead levels there. However, Ndalama admits that the government does not have enough resources to completely eradicate lead pollution.
Calls for officials and businesses to be held accountable are getting louder. Children in Kabwe have an average of over 20 times more lead in their blood than the kids in Flint, Michigan, did during the height of a water crisis that resulted in the approval of a $626.25 million to settlement for local residents.
A lawsuit has been filed demanding compensation for people with lead poisoning and a thorough cleanup in Kabwe. More than 100,000 people are represented in the unprecedented class action being prepared by the British human rights legal firm Leigh Day in partnership with lawyers in South Africa, to sue a subsidiary of Anglo American Plc. The lawyers in the team claim the company managed the mine during its most productive years before it was handed over to ZCCM. A court is yet to decide if the case can proceed.
“This is massive lead poisoning that these children in Zambia have suffered,” Richard Meeran, a partner and head of Leigh Day’s International Department told VICE World News.
Anglo American disputes that they are responsible for the lead contamination and instead blames ZCCM. ZCCM representatives say they are not aware of such claims.
“It’s completely in a different plane, on a different dimension from anything you’ll see in America or Europe,” Meeran added. “It’s inconceivable that a company would be allowed to operate a mine this way in Europe or the U.S.”