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Zambian groups urge cleanup of lead pollution as vote looms

With general elections looming, rights groups in Zambia appealed Tuesday to the country’s future leadership to tackle a notorious pollution hazard from what was once the world’s biggest lead mine.

Decades of lead mining have left Kabwe, around 150 kilometres (95 miles) north of Lusaka, severely polluted, with serious health impacts on residents.

Ahead of the southern African country’s general elections on August 12, the rights groups appealed to Zambian politicians to clean up pollution that is still wreaking havoc among residents 27 years after Kabwe’s lead mine was shuttered.

In the statement, six rights watchdogs including Human Right Watch (HRW) said the next government “should urgently clean up lead pollution that has affected the health of tens of thousands of children and adults” in Kabwe.

“Zambian political leaders and candidates should recognise the urgency of the Kabwe situation and commit in their election campaigns to cleaning up this toxic legacy,” HRW’s children’s rights director Juliane Kippenberg said in the statement.

She said UN experts on toxic pollution and persons with disabilities “have sounded the alarm bell over Kabwe”, in a letter published on Monday and addressed to the Zambian government.

In operation from the early 1900s until its closure in 1994, the lead mine was at one time the world’s largest. It was run by the Zambian government from the early 1970s when the mining industry was nationalised.

Although lead and zinc mining have stopped in the town, various medical studies conducted in recent years have shown that children in Kabwe still had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

According to a 2018 medical report cited by the rights groups, an estimated 95 percent of children in Kabwe townships have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The rights organisations have lambasted the government for licensing further mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks.

Under a World Bank-funded project, the government has conducted new rounds of testing and treatment, but the rights watchdogs say it has failed to address the source of the contamination itself — the waste left from the mining operations.

“If the waste is not cleaned up, progress made could be quickly reversed, as it will continue to spread toxic dust across the area,” the groups said.

A group of Zambian women and children last year filed a suit in South Africa against mining company Anglo American — which owned the mine from 1925 until 1974 — alleging that its lead operations caused widespread poisoning.