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Zambia: Kabwe’s Stolen Breath – Legacy of Lead and the Fight for a Greener Future

Kabwe, Zambia, once a bustling mining town, now bears the heavy weight of a toxic legacy.

Decades of lead mining by Anglo-Americans left the community gasping for breath, literally and figuratively. The land is choked with lead dust, the air thick with its invisible menace. But amid the devastation, a fight for a greener future is blooming.

For generations, the Zambian town of Kabwe gasped for air, choked by the silent scourge of lead poisoning. This festering wound left by decades of Anglo American’s copper mining operations ignited a fight for justice in the form of a historic class action lawsuit – a David and Goliath battle, a community rising against a mining giant, not just for financial recompense, but for the very breath of their stolen future.

The Kabwe mine, once a bustling “Broken Hill” of prosperity, stands as a monument to environmental negligence.

From 1925 to 1974, Anglo-American’s alleged mismanagement spewed lead dust like a malevolent fog, blanketing nearby towns and poisoning the land. Today, experts label Kabwe a “sacrifice zone“, a chilling testament to the company’s callous disregard.

Medical studies paint a grim picture. Children, their bodies still building, bear the brunt of this toxic inheritance. Their blood sings with record-high levels of lead, a silent symphony of developmental delays, cognitive impairment, and stolen potential. Pregnant women, too, are vulnerable, their unborn children facing a future dimmed by lead’s insidious touch.

An estimated 5.5 million people died of heart conditions linked to lead poisoning in 2019 – more than the number killed by outdoor air pollution over the same period, according to research in Lancet Planetary Health.

The lead-laced soil isn’t just a legal quagmire; it’s a public health emergency, an environmental catastrophe. Lush fields, once teeming with life, now lie barren, choked by the metallic grip of lead. Children, with their boundless curiosity and unformed defenses, play in this wasteland, their laughter echoing hollow against the poisoned sky.

But Kabwe refuses to be silenced.

The lawsuit is their clarion call, a demand for accountability that reverberates across continents. It’s a fight not just for compensation, but for the right to breathe clean air, to raise healthy children, and to reclaim a future poisoned by greed.

Can Zambia stop the lead poisoning crisis before it’s too late?

The fight against Zambia’s lead poisoning crisis demands a multi-faceted approach, and Ellah Zingani is a key player in this battle.

As a lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Zambia, she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. Since 2012, she’s dedicated her career to academia, weaving together research, teaching, and community engagement to improve the lives of Zambians. But Zingani’s impact goes beyond the confines of her academic work. Her dedication to research that directly addresses community needs and her active participation in community initiatives make her a voice worth listening to in navigating this complex issue.

Zingani poignantly describes the ongoing consequences of lead mining in Kabwe, even after the mines’ closure. “The environmental impacts are far-reaching,” she says. “Despite the mines being shut down, some small-scale mining continues, exposing the community to persistent lead contamination.”

The specter of lead exposure continues to haunt the community, a grim reminder that the closure of mines is not always synonymous with the end of their impact.

“Despite some measures to halt mining, communities still face continuous lead exposure. So the environmental impacts of mining include soil erosion, formation of sinkholes, the loss of biodiversity, contamination of both soil and groundwater,” she added.

Both surface water readily accessible to humans and groundwater suffer from lead pollution. This contamination poses a direct threat to public health.

“Mining also leads to deforestation and habitat destruction, triggering conflict between human settlements and wildlife,” she said. “The disruption of natural habitats displaces wildlife, forcing them to encroach upon human settlements. This creates conflict and endangers both humans and animals.”

“When habitats change due to mining,” Zingani explains, “wildlife has to adapt, often bringing them closer to human settlements. This can lead to fear and conflict, even towards animals like snakes, which play a vital role in the ecosystem.”

This showed the impact of the climate crisis, and the connection between deforestation and rising temperatures. She underlines the domino effect of environmental damage, where one consequence triggers another in a vicious cycle. The broader impact includes climate change, intensified by lead mining’s contribution to air, water, and soil pollution, along with deforestation.

Clean-up efforts are underway, but challenges remain

Cleaning up the lead-contaminated soil presents a complex challenge. “While there are five main methods for lead removal,” Zingani highlights, “the social, cultural, and behavioral context of the affected community must be considered in choosing the most suitable approach.”

Zingani describes five methods for removing lead from the soil, acknowledging the limitations of each.

“Physical removal, where they use things like cement or asphalt to bind with lead and then physically extract it, may seem effective,” explained Zingani, “but it’s not sustainable in the long run. It’s incredibly expensive and disrupts the environment.”

“For our environment, considering the social and cultural context of Kabwe in Zambia, I believe the most appropriate and sustainable option is phytoremediation,” she continued. “This method uses plants to attract lead from the lower soil layers to the upper parts, where they’re harvested and disposed of, essentially cleaning the environment.”

She listed sunflowers, mustard, poplar trees, willows, and “even ornamental cabbage” grown on a large scale in contaminated areas. Unlike food crops, these plants are used solely to remove lead from the soil making it safe and affordable – and communities can easily participate in the process, fostering both environmental and economic benefits.

“Bio-remediation harnesses the power of naturally occurring microorganisms,” said Zingani. “By introducing them into the soil, we encourage them to bind and degrade lead, leaving no harmful residues behind.”

“Bio-augmentation uses specially engineered microbes for the same purpose,” she elaborated. “Strains like Pseudomonas fluorescens and Klebsiella pneumoniae, modified for lead removal, offer targeted solutions. However, improper use of these engineered microbes can pose health risks, hence their limited application.”

“[Mining] companies have a social responsibility to address lead contamination,” urged Zingani. “Using special compost, lime, or biochar as soil amendments helps remove toxic substances like lead, contributing to environmental restoration.”

Tackling lead exposure risks through awareness and prevention

“It’s crucial to tailor public health messages to specific communities,” said Zingani.

“We often fall into the trap of using overly complex language and scientific jargon, leaving people confused and unable to grasp the true impact of issues like lead pollution. “This creates a communication breakdown,” she warns, “impeding the dissemination of vital information and hindering our ability to empower communities to protect themselves.”

To effectively address environmental concerns like lead pollution, “we need clear, accessible communication that resonates with the affected communities,” she said. Public health announcements and educational materials should be “designed not to disrupt daily lives, but to illuminate the reality of the situation and its consequences for those living in polluted environments.”

Community involvement is paramount in this process. “Focused discussions with community members are essential to determine the most effective ways to share information,” she advises. Community leaders play a vital role in facilitating these discussions and ensuring that messages resonate with local contexts and concerns.

The challenge remains, however, as small-scale mining continues to contribute to lead pollution despite the closure of the main mine.

“Small-scale mining activities can perpetuate pollution,” necessitating ongoing communication and mitigation efforts. Scientists, environmentalists, and all stakeholders must collaborate to “find better ways to communicate with the public and empower them to protect their health and environment,” she added.

Can local communities play in the soil remediation process?

While the weight of lead pollution remediation often falls on larger entities, local communities hold immense potential to contribute to the process. “Local communities can play a crucial role in the soil remediation process around lead pollution, but their participation should be mindful of economic realities and health considerations,” said Zingani.

She highlights the potential of amaranth, a local vegetable that naturally absorbs lead from the soil. “Amaranth, a local vegetable, can be a powerful tool for natural lead remediation, but its harvested crop cannot be consumed due to contamination.”

Large-scale amaranth cultivation, as she suggests, can be a valuable remediation tool, but it’s crucial to remember, as Zingani says, “its harvested crop cannot be consumed due to contamination.”

Economic disparities must also be addressed. Community leaders, as Zingani proposes, can play a vital role in ensuring equitable access to solutions. For low-income households, “providing sunlight access for small gardens,” as Zingani suggests, could be a game-changer, allowing them to physically remove contaminated soil and continue growing safe food. This aligns with Zingani’s call for community leaders to step in and say, “Okay, maybe for these particular households, let’s try and give them the sunlight for their small garden…”

Zingani also underscores the importance of proactive health measures.

“Encouraging voluntary health checkups is crucial for early identification and treatment of lead poisoning within the community,” she said. “By raising awareness about the potential risks and promoting regular checkups, communities can empower individuals to take control of their health.”