World’s Most Toxic Town: Kabwe, Zambia

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SEATTLE — Kabwe is the second largest city in Zambia and has a population of 300,000. It contains one of the largest and richest mines in Africa. Kabwe is the world’s most toxic town, according to pollution experts. The town is the site of mass lead poisoning which has almost certainly damaged generations of children, and continues to do so.

Lead particles enter the body by inhalation or ingestion of airborne particles, food grown in contaminated soils and dust created in the mine dumps as people search for scrap metals.

The story behind Kabwe’s status as the world’s most toxic town is prolonged lead mining and smelting operations that stretch back to more than a century. Kabwe was once a thriving town of 220,000 in the heart of Africa’s copper belt, 200 kilometers north of the capital Lusaka. Now, generations of children suffer from damaged lungs and organs, poisoning more every day.

The damage done has become irreversible and the lives of 60,000 children are at risk. A blood concentration of more than 120 lead micrograms per deciliter can kill. In Kabwe, the concentrations found in some adults and children reached 117.6 micrograms per deciliter.

Lead is one of the most potent neurotoxins known to humans. If directly inhaled, it attacks the central nervous system, causing particular damage in infants and children. It can even enter a mother’s placenta. The fumes of a giant state-owned smelter covered the soils with dust and lead, increasing chances for inhalation.

The Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP) is one of many organizations trying to remedy the damage in the world’s most toxic town. It has implemented a comprehensive risk communication program and other development programs. The CEP set aside around $15 million of the budget for Kabwe. The World Bank has also provided funding to the CEP.

Other organizations remain involved in the fight. Kay-Valentine Musakanya runs the Kabwe Environmental Rehabilitation Foundation. Also, the Blacksmith Institute, founded by a local NGO, is working with the World Bank; about $50 million in loans and grants has been secured for Kabwe, but $40 million is still needed to see rehabilitation and health projects completed.

No simple solution is available to the problem. Resolving the lead problem in the world’s most toxic town would require covering Kabwe mine dumps in vegetation or concrete to prevent the dust from blowing across the town. Dealing with the adverse health conditions caused by the pollution calls for trained medical staff and proper equipment. Actions for implementing change include widespread education, awareness and community outreach to local residents.

Aishwarya Bansal

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Aishwarya Bansal

Aishwarya lives in New York, NY. Aishwarya's academic interests include negotiation and conflict resolution. Aishwarya also has a Bachelors in Political Science from Hindu College, University of Delhi, India, is a national level level basketball player and a professional Sitar player.

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