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Zambia: Communities still suffer from lead poisoning decades after mine closures

‘Toxic mines poison locals long after closure’ 5 September 2019

“Henry” is thin and small for his age. The 10-year-old, his mum and I are sitting outside in the dusty, poor township of Waya in the Zambian city of Kabwe on a hot, dry afternoon. His mum, looking weary, describes their life near the city’s former lead and zinc mine. She worries about her children’s health and tells Henry and his siblings to avoid the dust that blows over from there. A few years ago, Henry was found to have extremely high amounts of lead in his blood, high enough to warrant immediate treatment, according to medical experts. But he never received any medical care.

More than 6-million tons of mining waste remain in place, and dust from these uncovered waste dumps blows over nearby residential areas. The most visible dump is known locally as the “Black Mountain”. About half of the children living in the affected neighbourhoods need medical treatment, experts say. Lead can cause stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, coma and convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable.

When Human Rights Watch visited Kabwe in 2018 public health facilities had no kits for lead testing, nor any medicine. Many residents said they felt fearful, and helpless. “You see dust is everywhere. It is all over. So, this lead just can’t stop spreading,” Henry’s mother told me. “The president should bring us medicine,” Henry added. The Zambian government has issued a large-scale mining licence to British company Berkeley Mineral Resources (BMR), which is planning to reprocess lead, zinc and vanadium from the mine’s waste in a joint business venture with SA company Jubilee Metals. Human Rights Watch wrote to both companies asking what they were doing to prevent harm; BMR referred us to Jubilee Metals, and Jubilee Metals did not respond.

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