Sulphur dioxide is highly toxic and can be fatal once inhaled depending on the concetration of fumes, Dr Aaron Mujajati has said.

Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) Plc’s acid plant in Chingola last week discharged sulphur dioxide, resulting in over 45 employees and school children suffocating.

The employees had been hospitalized after suffocation from sulphur dioxide at Nchanga South Hospital, with several pupils at Nchanga Trust School also quickly rushed to the same health facility after being affected by the sulphur dioxide discharge.

This led to the shutdown of the acid plant as investigations into the occurrence continue.

When reached for comment, KCM provisional liquidator Milingo Lungu said mining remained a dangerous activity and that accidents could happen at any time.

The Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) had dispatched inspectors to Chingola to carry out detailed investigations into the latest incident and that apart from closure, further regulatory action would be undertaken in line with provisions of the Environmental Management Act No. 12 of 2011.

KCM corporate affairs director Eugene Chungu stated on Friday that the mine had contained the sulphur dioxide emmision.

“Last evening (Thursday) at around 18:30hrs, the 500 TPD Sulphur Burning Plant experienced an electrical power supply surge which tripped and disturbed the Plant. During the early hours of this morning, 15 November 2019, while in the process of stabilizing the plant, some gases escaped into the atmosphere and the surrounding areas, including the New East Mill Crusher Plant where 53 employees experienced irritation and inhalation difficulties. They were taken to the hospital for mandatory observation before being pronounced medically fit and discharged,” Chungu stated.

“Related to this incident, this morning at around 07:30hrs, the Company received a report that Nchanga Trust Secondary School was not conducive for the pupils to sit for Grade 12 examinations and Nchanga Trust Secondary School Management referred 232 pupils to the Hospital for observation. KCM, working with various Government Departments in the District, immediately formed a joint team to assess the suitability of the school to continue being an Examination Centre for the scheduled Grade 12 Examination. The team has since determined the school to be safe for normal occupation. The Nchanga South Hospital Medical staff certified the 37 grade 12 pupils fit to write the examinations and all the pupils returned to school where they sat for the examinations.”

Inhaling sulfur dioxide causes irritation to the nose, eyes, throat, and lungs with typical symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, burning eyes, and cough.

Dr Mujajati, a medical doctor, has said inhaling acid fumes can cause chemically induced inflammation of the lungs and has the potential to cause death depending on the concentration of the acid.

“Inhaling acid films, basically we are looking at a few issues here. First of all, number one, you are looking at a possibility of a very acute chemical pneumonitis, like some sort of chemical pneumonia but in this case, it’s chemical pneumonitis. This is a chemically induced inflammation of the lungs themselves and also depending on the concentration of the acid itself in the fumes, you could see actual physical damage of the lungs themselves in the acute phase where you find that people are struggling to breathe and some are even coughing blood in their sputum. Ideally, depending on how quickly they are attended to, we shouldn’t expect any problems per se; it’s something that they can get out of but if the concentrations are quite high, then it’s quite serious,” said Mujajati.