The Human Rights Watch says Lead exposure around a former lead and zinc mine in Zambia is having disastrous effects on children’s health.

And the Ministry of Mines banned the Human Rights Watch from launching their report on lead contamination in Zambia, calling it an “attempt to discredit the government”.

Exposure to high levels of lead can cause learning barriers or disabilities; behavioural problems; impaired growth; anaemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and even death. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.”

In a press release issued by Children’s Rights Division Associate Director, Juliane Kippenberg, after the launch of the report in Johannesburg, Thursday, the Human Rights Watch recommended that the Zambian government should promptly clean up the contamination and ensure proper treatment for all who need it.

The 88-page report dubbed “We Have to Be Worried: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia,” examines the effects of lead contamination in Kabwe, a provincial capital, on children’s rights to health, a healthy environment, education, and play.

“Twenty-five years after the mine closed, children living in nearby townships continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust in their homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and other public spaces. The Zambian government’s efforts to address the environmental and health consequences of the widespread lead contamination have not thus far been sufficient, and parents struggle to protect their children,” read the release.

And during the launch, children’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch Joanna Naples-Mitchell said generations of children had grown up with toxic lead.

“The profits of Kabwe’s mine came at a very high cost to generations of children who have grown up with toxic lead found throughout surrounding townships. While the Zambian government has made several attempts to clean up the lead since the mine closed in 1994, the actual scope of the problem has yet to be addressed,” Naples-Mitchel, who also authored the report, said.

According to the release, the Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 residents of townships near the former mine, including the parents or guardians of 60 children who had been tested since the last government cleanup project ended and found elevated lead levels.

“Human Rights Watch found that government-run health facilities in Kabwe currently had no chelation medicine for treating lead poisoning or lead test kits in stock, and no health database had been established to track cases of children who died or were hospitalised because of high lead levels. Education for children with disabilities or learning barriers is a country-wide challenge in Zambia, and in Kabwe, the disability screening process does not even investigate lead-related causes,” read the release.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to ingest lead dust when playing in the soil, their brains and bodies are still developing, and they absorb at least four times as much lead as adults.

Kippenberg stated that a member of staff at a local clinic told Human Rights Watch that there was lack of sensitisation or tracking of lead poisoning.

“From 2003 to 2011, the World Bank funded a Zambian government project intended to clean up lead in affected townships in Kabwe and to provide testing and treatment for children. But about 76,000 people continue to live in contaminated areas. In a 2018 study, researchers estimated that over 95 percent of children in the townships surrounding the lead mine have elevated blood lead levels and that about half of them require medical intervention. Human Rights Watch found that the Kabwe mine’s waste dumps remain, exposing nearby residential areas to windblown lead dust and threatening community health. The government has neither removed the waste piles nor sealed the site, both of which have been done elsewhere in the world to treat affected sites,” Kippenberg stated.

The Human Rights Watch recommended a lasting plan to address the impact of lead contamination.

“The Zambian government should adopt a lasting and comprehensive plan to address the impact of lead contamination, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that it provides for long-term containment or removal of lead hazards and that it addresses the full scope of the contamination in affected areas, including homes, schools, health centres, and roads. Initial rounds of testing and treatment under the new project should give priority to those who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, including children under age 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women, Human Rights Watch said. Ultimately, all children and adults in Kabwe should be eligible for testing and treatment. All treatment, especially chelation therapy, should coincide with cleaning up the patient’s home environment. Otherwise they will be re-exposed to lead,” Kippenberg stated.

And according to the press release, however, the Zambian government stopped Human Rights Watch from launching their report in Zambia, despite being engaged at every stage of the investigation.

“Human Rights Watch had engaged the Zambian government, including the Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development, in dialogue throughout its investigation, and invited the government to participate in the news conference to release the report. On August 12, 2019, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Mines sent Human Rights Watch a letter stating that the organisation would not be allowed to release the report at an event in Lusaka. Rather than engage with Human Rights Watch over its substantive findings, the letter attacked the report as an ‘attempt to discredit the government’,” read the release.

Reacting to the Zambian government’s decision to ban the launch of this report in Zambia, Naples-Mitchell said it was unfortunate that government wanted to suppress the findings.

“The real threat to the government’s credibility lies in its own indefensible efforts to suppress our findings,” said Naples-Mitchell.

“Instead of attacking its critics, the Zambian government should articulate a clear plan for living up to its responsibilities in Kabwe.”