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The Heavy Legacy of Lead in the World's Most Toxic Town—in Pictures

May 29, 2017|

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Kabwe, Zambia is Africa's most toxic city.

Atop Black Mountain: More than 6 million metric tonnes of lead slag form Black Mountain, a 30-meter pile of toxic lead waste that still contains a sizable quantity of lead, copper, manganese and zinc. Due to a depressed economy and lack of employment among many of Kabwe's residents, scavengers toil daily to mine some of the richer veins of lead slag for resale to reprocessing smelters in Zambia. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. 

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‘Landscapes do well to describe the immediate scenes, but the gut-wrenching reality of the human toll is more difficult to describe in photographs,’ says photographer Larry Price. ‘My approach was to also humanise the tragedy of Kabwe.’ This portrait is of lead poisoning victim Fostina Kasaila, 11. ‘I want to be a soldier,’ she said. ‘I want to protect people.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

‘Landscapes do well to describe the immediate scenes, but the gut-wrenching reality of the human toll is more difficult to describe in photographs,’ says photographer Larry Price. ‘My approach was to also humanise the tragedy of Kabwe.’ This portrait is of lead poisoning victim Fostina Kasaila, 11. ‘I want to be a soldier,’ she said. ‘I want to protect people.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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The huge lead and zinc mine and smelter in Kabwe closed in 1994 but the 6m tonnes of slag and tailings remain, including Black Mountain. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

The huge lead and zinc mine and smelter in Kabwe closed in 1994 but the 6m tonnes of slag and tailings remain, including Black Mountain. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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People illegally scavenge the slag heaps for scraps of lead to sell, exposing themselves to extreme levels of highly toxic lead. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

People illegally scavenge the slag heaps for scraps of lead to sell, exposing themselves to extreme levels of highly toxic lead. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Scavenging is dangerous work but people still do it due to lack of other options. ‘If I could get another job, I would go there,’ said one, Provost Musonda. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Scavenging is dangerous work but people still do it due to lack of other options. ‘If I could get another job, I would go there,’ said one, Provost Musonda. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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The scavengers have only hand tools to dig their tunnels and suffer immediate health problems, as well on the long term harm of lead poisoning. ‘Our daily experience is chest pains, due to the dust,’ said Musonda. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

The scavengers have only hand tools to dig their tunnels and suffer immediate health problems, as well on the long term harm of lead poisoning. ‘Our daily experience is chest pains, due to the dust,’ said Musonda. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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The tunnels are extremely dangerous and some have collapsed, killing the people inside. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

The tunnels are extremely dangerous and some have collapsed, killing the people inside. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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The dust and soil around the spoil heaps, where adults and children work, are 3-6% lead – far above the safety level of 0.04%. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

The dust and soil around the spoil heaps, where adults and children work, are 3-6% lead – far above the safety level of 0.04%. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Brian Jovo, 14, drinks water collected from a pool at Black Mountain, where he helps the workers. ‘I haven’t gone to school yet because there is no money,’ he said. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Brian Jovo, 14, drinks water collected from a pool at Black Mountain, where he helps the workers. ‘I haven’t gone to school yet because there is no money,’ he said. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Elsewhere on the contaminated former mine site, women and children crush rock to sell as gravel. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Elsewhere on the contaminated former mine site, women and children crush rock to sell as gravel. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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The rock crushers pass signs reading ‘Danger keep away!’ to reach the site, but say they have no other work. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

The rock crushers pass signs reading ‘Danger keep away!’ to reach the site, but say they have no other work. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Abraham, 6, and Acili, 4, help their mother Debola Kunda to crush and carry stones. The levels of toxic lead are extreme but she said: ‘We know about that but what can we do when there are no others at home to take care of the children? How will we eat if we stay at home.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Abraham, 6, and Acili, 4, help their mother Debola Kunda to crush and carry stones. The levels of toxic lead are extreme but she said: ‘We know about that but what can we do when there are no others at home to take care of the children? How will we eat if we stay at home.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Children are especially at risk from lead poisoning and they ingest dust while playing, on football fields and elsewhere in Chowa township, next to the former mine site. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Children are especially at risk from lead poisoning and they ingest dust while playing, on football fields and elsewhere in Chowa township, next to the former mine site. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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No systematic assessment has been made of the thousands affected by lead poisoning in Kabwe. But community coordinator Barry Mulimba said: ‘The [children] have stunted growth, they become very easily irritated and in schools their IQ is affected and they become slow learners in class. It is a very, very sorry sight.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

No systematic assessment has been made of the thousands affected by lead poisoning in Kabwe. But community coordinator Barry Mulimba said: ‘The [children] have stunted growth, they become very easily irritated and in schools their IQ is affected and they become slow learners in class. It is a very, very sorry sight.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Measurements of blood lead levels in 246 children in Kabwe showed all had levels above safe levels and the vast majority had over nine times higher, at which serious health impacts are expected. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017. 

Measurements of blood lead levels in 246 children in Kabwe showed all had levels above safe levels and the vast majority had over nine times higher, at which serious health impacts are expected. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017. 

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Lead poisoning victim Royce Sakaloa, 6, plays in her backyard less than 50m from the entrance to the former mine. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Lead poisoning victim Royce Sakaloa, 6, plays in her backyard less than 50m from the entrance to the former mine. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Lead poisoning victims Martin Cilufya, 7, and brother Gift, 10. Their mother said milk rations are the only help offered: ‘They say it is every two months, but sometimes it only comes after six.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Lead poisoning victims Martin Cilufya, 7, and brother Gift, 10. Their mother said milk rations are the only help offered: ‘They say it is every two months, but sometimes it only comes after six.’ Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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Lead poisoning victim Gift Phiri, 6, drinks in his backyard in Chowa, the heavily polluted township next to the closed lead mine. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

Lead poisoning victim Gift Phiri, 6, drinks in his backyard in Chowa, the heavily polluted township next to the closed lead mine. Image by Larry C. Price. Zambia, 2017.

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A canal drains the huge spoil heaps of the former mine but it often overflows during heavy seasonal rains, leaving nearby homes heavily contaminated. Photographer Larry Price is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A canal drains the huge spoil heaps of the former mine but it often overflows during heavy seasonal rains, leaving nearby homes heavily contaminated. Photographer Larry Price is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.