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Story Publication logo June 14, 2017

Legacy of Lead: The Children of Kabwe


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Years of unmitigated contamination from Zambia's largest lead mine have created a toxic nightmare...


If Kabwe is one of the most polluted towns on Earth, Chowa is certainly the most polluted neighborhood on the planet. Less than a kilometer from the center of Kabwe, Zambia's second largest city, the neighborhood of modest homes sits on the edge of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mine (ZCCM). As foreign companies extracted a fortune in lead, copper, and other ores from the mine over the last century, an estimated 6.5 million tonnes of lead-contaminated slag accumulated here, causing catastrophic health effects for those nearby.

Those most at risk are the children. In the center of Chowa, a football field attracts children flying kites and on weekends becomes the center of the area's organized sports competitions.

It's hard to say how many Chowa residents are affected by high blood lead levels. But several generations have grown up here since the mine opened. Non-governmental organizations from several nations have been studying the lead pollution here for a dozen years and remediating as possible. Even as an almost overwhelming amount of remediation remains, parents seem resigned to the lead exposure, which is constant and frightening.    

It doesn't take long to find the victims of Chowa. Talk to parents as they watch their children play and you will hear the stories. All very similar: the same symptoms, the same accounts of weight gain or loss, the same descriptions of poor school performance or lack of focus. The same sighs of frustration as they describe the recommended treatments that seem to do little to help the children. 

These are the stories of the children of Chowa. 

Fostina, 11

Fostina Kasaila is a strikingly beautiful fifth grader. She seems tentative, yet instinctively polite as she's encouraged by her grandparents to shake hands with the two strangers who've arrived at her tiny home.

Fostina sits wedged next to her grandfather, Enoch Kasaila, in a red-cushioned chair that dominates the cramped living room. She was 11 months old when she was adopted by Enoch and his wife Ella. Fostina doesn't smile a lot, but her eyes sparkle as she follows the conversation. Enoch speaks eloquent English and explains Fostina's struggles with lead poisoning.

The problems began shortly after Fostina turned 4. "We started noticing she was losing memory," Enoch explains. Sometimes when you talk to her, she doesn't answer. Her teachers complained she was lazy. She used to do so well, so we took her to the clinic. The clinic discovered that she was affected by lead," he says with a sigh.

Asked if he knows where the lead comes from, Enoch tells of a flood in 2008. He recounts how the Chowa canal, the waterway that carries a toxic soup of lead and water away from the nearby mining site, overflowed and inundated the neighborhood, polluting his home and yard.

Fostina looks up. "How do you feel?" I ask. She hesitates then softly answers the question as she averts her eyes. "I have a lot of backaches and headaches," she says and dashes into her room.

"The treatment," says Enoch, "was to improve the diet by feeding her foods rich in nutrients. They said to give her Jolly Juice and blackberries. She's not doing well in school and the doctors say that if we don't improve the diet her life will be in danger."

After a long pause, Enoch says flatly, "There is not much improvement."

Marti, 7, and Gift Chilufya, 10

Annie Kabwe seems tentative when asked about the high blood lead levels discovered in two of her three children during a screening by clinic workers in 2010.

As she explains the symptoms and advice given by the staff of the nearby Chowa Clinic, it becomes clear that she and other families understand little about the real dangers their children face daily as they live and play in this toxic place.

Annie's story is similar to accounts by other parents. "I noticed a high fever...stomach pains...loss of appetite and coughing," she says, wringing her hands.  She took her children to the clinic where twins, Blessings and Gift, then 3 years old, and their younger brother, Martin, barely 1, were tested for lead poisoning. Doctors told her that Gift and Martin had elevated lead levels and recommended a diet rich in milk mixed with molasses.

Doctors also suggested Gift and Martin should try to eat more vegetables. Annie was given a voucher for free milk—each was eligible for a liter of milk every two weeks to augment what the family could afford to buy. Doctors told her the milk and molasses would filter the lead from their blood and that they would be fine in time.

Doctors also told Annie to keep the children out of the dusty yards and streets—a tough order since families naturally tend to migrate outside their homes during the warmer months.

In 2015, the African NGO, Environment Africa, came to Annie's neighborhood to remediate the lead by systematically covering the soil in homes and playgrounds with a layer of clean earth. The toxic-free soil helped alleviate new threats of lead contamination from seasonal floods from the nearby canal that drains the slag heaps.

"We are hopeful the problem will go away now the the exposure is less," Annie says. "These days they still have headaches. They are so bad they bleed from the nose," she sighs and points to Martin, who is small for his age. "This happens," she says pointing to her nose, "when he plays a lot and when he's exposed to sunlight and heat."

It's been more than six years since Gift and Martin were diagnosed with elevated lead levels.

"Their performance at school keeps going down and they are forgetting easily. Sometimes they lack concentration. The teacher will talk to them and he will finally respond after three questions," she says.

Martin is asked what he wants to be when he grow up. "I'd like to be a doctor," he tells the visitors.

Gift Phiri, 6

In the corner of the grassy yard, surrounded by flowering shrubs, Phiri sits in the crook of an avocado tree. He has a radiant smile and says his favorite thing to do is climb the tree. He's surrounded by other neighborhood boys who compete for a branch, but he is smaller and more agile, so he climbs ever higher as his smile turns to squealing laughter.

His grandfather, Wilford Chipeta, watches with amusement as they play. Lead poisoning can cause severe developmental problems, cognitive difficulties and, if untreated, death.

As he jumps down from the avocado tree and scampers to the adults sitting in the bench circle, it's easy to understand Wilford's concern about Gift's stature. He's a tiny boy with thin wrists and skin stretched tightly over his slender frame. His face looks older, normal actually, but his body appears to lag behind a full two years in development.

Thirsty from play, drink from a faucet near the back door.  "[The doctors] told us drugs may be coming for us soon," Wilford says.  "They told him to drink milk twice a week. They said it would reduce lead in the blood."  The family had little money for milk but now receive a liter every two weeks.

Alex Znaingambe, 12

Richard Znaingambe, who makes a good living as a video store clerk in downtown Kabwe, has assumed the care of his nephew Alex.  The boy, tall and polite, sits quietly next to his uncle, trying to follow the conversation. Richard talks nervously about the weather and thanks us for our interest in his family.

Asked about the problem of so many Chowa children whose blood tests reveal high levels of lead, his face become intense and his voice become serious. "The lead," Richard says, looking at Alex. Richard nods without speaking and Alex begins, "They said I have high levels of lead, so they gave me milk and soy porridge to drink." Richard interrupts, sounding frustrated. "They gave us two liters of milk and one packet of soy every two months. The doctors told us to drink extra water." Alex continues. "I drink as much as I can."

Richard mentions Alex's school performance and shakes his head, explaining the class order. There are 45 students in Alex's class. Alex chimes in. "I'm 33rd," he says. I like school but I'm not doing so well."

Richard states flatly, "Grade six and not reading."  I ask Alex what he does best. His face brightens. "I like to play football at the playground," he says.

Royce Sakarya, 6

Mine employee Boas Sakaloa jumped at the chance to move into a new home a mere 50 meters from the main shaftway of the notorious lead and zinc mine that operated here continuously from 1904 until 1994. The company he works for is planning to revive parts of the mine and reprocess slag. Sakaloa's house, which once was part of the mine office complex, is free—a perk of his work.

Sakaloa's 6-year-old daughter Royce, her older brother, and other children play in the common yard and along well-tended sidewalks that connect the row of tiny homes. Looks are deceiving, however.  Random readings here suggest the lead in the surface soil can reach up to 15,000 parts per million (PPM), which is a staggering amount. Any consistent contact with soil this toxic is certain to cause sickness, experts say.

Boas describes Royce's struggle with lead poisoning: "At first she was with a fever and coughing, so I took her to the clinic. She was 3 years old. She had no appetite but was gaining weight. They said to give her some potatoes, milk, and soy powder to reduce weight."

Boas said doctors told him that Royce's high blood lead levels accounted for the weight gain. Royce is now an energetic and gregarious first grader at the nearby Eva Chabala Foundation Trust School and seems to be showing signs of improvement at school. "At first the teachers said she was losing concentration. Now she is getting a good improvement," Boas says, patting Royce's knee. "She's gone from 15 of 40 to three of 40," he explains, referring to her class rank. "The teachers were complaining of no appetite and at least now she finishes (her food)," he says, describing the irony of weight gain and no appetite.

Asked what he thought made Royce sick, Boas is direct. "She was born here. She was playing in the soil. This place was contaminated with lead."

Abigayle Kabuse, 8

Joyce Jere motions for her daughter, Abigayle, to sit next to her. Abigayle is thin and tall. She plops down next to her mother and tries to listen as Joyce begins to explain the first symptoms.

"She had a body hotness, and she ate too much," Joyce begins. "At times she had head and stomach pains."

It's a common story here in Chowa. Children begin to experience strange symptoms: Headaches, lethargy, intermittent fevers. Or their eating habits change: They eat more than normal and still lose weight. Sometimes they lose their appetite, eat very little, and gain weight. Almost universally, though, parents or teachers notice a demonstrable lack of focus and performance at school.

Abigayle might be one of the lucky ones. She was tested in 2015 and found to have high blood lead levels. "The doctors said I would be getting milk and soya and tuna," Joyce said. Abigayle was given the nutritious food, and Joyce was able to buy a quantity of the drug "Chemet," which is a chelation therapy used remove elemental lead from the body.

Joyce said she's been careful with Abigayle's diet and has noticed an improvement. "She is doing well in school," Joyce says smiling, then explains that Abigayle is now ranked first in her class.

Abigayle scampers out the door. As we leave a short while later, she's giggling from her perch in a fruit tree that towers above the front porch.

Chitanda Muyende, 9

Precious Muyende blames the flood. "That's why we have a lot of lead," she says, pointing through the doorway. The yard is more red than green; thin patches of grass recede from the small home's porch and give way to red dirt. 

Her daughter Chitanda sits quietly beside her, staring at the floor, her head resting on the curve of the sofa arm. 

The canal, which cuts through Chowa and runs immediately behind the home, has drained mining waste, water, and sludge from the nearby lead mine for as long as anyone can remember. "It would flood. That's why we have a lot of lead," Precious says.

The canal was built decades ago when environmental concerns were nonexistent. Today, the canal is a large ditch overgrown with reeds, lilies, and other vegetation. When the rains come, the canal backs up, spilling contaminated water into the neighborhood. 

"The permanent solution is to plaster in the canal, so it will not flood," Precious concludes, referring to the need to eliminate the vegetation that chokes the water flow through the canal. Precious says she and others are frustrated with years of proposed projects and promises to deal with the problem. "People are holding money. They do not do it," she says.

On this day, instruments register lead readings of more than 12,000 parts per million of in the soil and around the nearby canal, indicating that the soil is 1.2 percent lead.

"When you do the tests," Precious continues, "that's when you start thinking about it. I started thinking about school. She was not so bright. She has a lot of problems eating in the evening. She just takes tea," Precious says.

All four of her children have been tested and all have high blood lead levels. "I was advised to give (them) some milk," she says.

Chitanda gets up and scampers through the house, as Precious follows her movement. Precious says she doesn't like for the children to play in the yard and streets. 

"The environmentals said to plant some grass," she says, explaining that her yard was on a list of homes for remediation. "You dig down and there's a lot of red," she says, gesturing with her hand to indicate about six inches. "They have not done it [remediation] yet. It will hopefully be done in a future phase."

Chitanda bounces into the kitchen. Precious glances through the doorway and sighs. "She was tested five times. She had a problem. You can't finish it. You can only manage it."





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Health Inequities

Health Inequities

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