Kabwe is the world’s most toxic town, according to pollution experts, where mass lead poisoning has almost certainly damaged the brains and other organs of generations of children – and where children continue to be poisoned every day.
Almost a century of lead mining and smelting has left a truly toxic legacy in the once-thriving town of 220,000 people in central Africa’s Copperbelt, 100km north of the capital Lusaka. But the real impact on Kabwe’s people is yet to be fully revealed and, while the first steps towards a clean-up have begun, new dangers are emerging as desperately poor people scavenge in the vast slag heap known as Black Mountain.
“Having been to probably 20 toxic hotspots throughout the world, and seeing mercury, chromium and many contaminated lead sites, [I can say] the scale in Kabwe is unprecedented,” says Prof Jack Caravanos, an environmental health expert at New York University, on his fourth visit to the town. “There are thousands of people affected here, not hundreds as in other places.”
The fumes from the giant state-owned smelter, which closed in 1994, has left the dusty soil in the surrounding area with extreme levels of lead. The metal, still used around the world in car batteries, is a potent neurotoxin and is particularly damaging to children. But it is youngsters who swallow the most, especially as infants when they start to play outside and frequently put their hands in their mouths.
It was at that age that Martin’s mother, Annie Kabwe, first noticed her children getting stomach pains and fevers, and losing weight. “I thought it might be HIV, but the tests were negative,” she says. Then blood tests revealed very high levels of lead.
“I thought they would die,” Kabwe says. After learning about the toxicity of the dust in her neighbourhood and reducing her children’s lead exposure, through frequent washing of hands and clothes, the worst has not happened. “The problem is they are not really learning well in school, so the lead is still affecting them,” she says.
Caravanos says lead poisoning stays with you for the rest of your life – it can’t be reversed. Having seen the extreme lead levels measured in children in several townships, he says severe and widespread health impacts are highly likely, including brain damage, palsy and ultimately fatalities. “I am concerned kids are dying here,” he says.
Barry Mulimba, who as a volunteer community facilitator has seen many affected children, says: “I feel very, very sad, especially for the children, because we consider the children our future leaders and if they do not get a good education, they will not be capable.”
The slow, insidious nature of lead poisoning means careful epidemiological work is needed to distinguish its effects from other causes and reveal the true extent of the crisis. But that work has barely begun. “It is shocking to think that we are here in 2017 and that problem we have known about for decades is still here,” says Caravanos.
Lead poisoning remains a highly sensitive issue in Kabwe and people from several organisations refused to speak to the Guardian, while those trying to tackle the problem complain that data gathered by officials is not made public.