The Zambian government has penalized a Chinese-owned mine for violating pollution laws. Health experts say tens of thousands of lives are in danger because of the mining for magnesium, lead and zinc. From the capital, Lusaka, VOA English to Africa reporter Danstan Kaunda says this may be the first of many Chinese businesses to be scrutinized for their environmental practices.
The lives of more than 60,000 children and adults are said to be at risk of lead poisoning by the Chinese-owned mine in Kabwe, a town situated some 150 kilometers north of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka.
Chiman Manufacturing Limited was shut down by Zambia’s Environmental Council for failing to put air control pollution mechanisms in place at its smelter plant. It’s also accused of failing to safeguard its open slag dumpsites as mandated by the environmental authority.
The company has been mining lead and other metals for more than two years in Zambia. It re-invested $200 million in the Kabwe mine, which had been closed for 15 years.
Environmental and health officials say high traces of lead content were found in blood samples taken from nearby residents, mostly in children under age six. Officials say the children contract the toxic substance mostly through inhaling the polluted air and by playing in dust contaminated by lead particles.
Stephen Musatwa lives in the nearby township of Mutwe Wa-Nsofu. He says the area has seen an increase in illnesses that cause coughing in children and miscarriages or stillbirths in women: “The (lead poison) dust, it blows in this area. The color is sometimes bluish, and the smell is very bad. For that reason, a lot of people here were concerned, and we complained and complained to the authorities. Our children from age 0 to 7 years are the most vulnerable to this poisoning—they are affected very badly. And [our women] are having premature babies while others are facing abortions. There are too many abortions.”
A recent study found that more than 38 children have a high level of lead in their blood. The study was conducted by the Copperbelt Environmental Project. It also established the extent of lead pollution on the environment and the effect on humans in the area.
The mining company has also been found liable for not providing protective clothing and equipment to its staff. They work in their own clothing—and health officials say this is the other way toxic substances find their way into the local community.
So far, the mining company has not responded to the allegations.
But environmental specialists say the community can take a few basic steps to limit its exposure to the lead. These include keeping children away from dusty areas and planting grass in open areas to suppress dust.
Mwangala Chiwala is with the Copper-belt Environmental Project, which is funded by the World Bank in an effort to address problems associated with the mining sector in Zambia. He says “One of our key messages in this risk communication to the communities are good hygiene and dust suppression. And as such, we have engaged the communities in the affected areas to coming up with a project to restore water supply for hygiene and to provide alternative safe places for children to play in (the community play-parks).”
Chiwala said re-installing the water supply in the town’s affected areas will help communities cope by suppressing dust with water.
In adults, continuous and excessive exposure to lead can affect the central nervous system and can also cause kidney damage. In children, lead can affect their intellectual and social development.
A similar problem is emerging in some of the Chinese-owned Copper mines near the Democratic Republic of Congo. Health specialists warn that the mines are illegally emitting sulfur dioxide. It can lead to diseases such as asthma and other respiratory problems. They are advising mining companies to build industrial acid plants to convert the emitted sulfur dioxide into sulfuric acid – for industrial use.
Catherine Mawele is a resident of Kitwe in the Copper-belt. She says, “At times where they release it (sulfur dioxide) in the air, it comes in small blocks and when it enters someone’s eye, it itches a lot --like chili in the eye. And the children and elderly with chest illnesses like Asthma, they often have difficulties in breathing. The vegetation here is dry and dead because of the (sulfur dioxide), so what is the point of cultivating if we can not get anything out of it. It also causes you to itch.”
Two years ago, more than 50 workers died of an explosion there. The blast was said to be caused by explosives stored at the plant.
So far, the mining company has not compensated the families of the victims. As a result, some Zambians are souring on Chinese investment in the country.