Almost every single child in Chowa is suffering from lead poisoning.
Nearly all of Chowa’s children were found to have blood lead levels that are ten to 20 times the CDC recommended level, which can be fatal.
The source of the toxin? A group of lead mines and smelters located just a short five-minute walk away from hundreds of homes.
Every time the wind blows, toxic lead dust covers the town, exposing thousands of residents to extremely high levels of the potent neurotoxin. Lead affects developing brains and poses the greatest risk to the young.
Chowa’s children and future are in jeopardy.
But Chowa is not the only neighborhood in Kabwe, Zambia, with a lead pollution problem. A 2006 health study discovered that, on average, children’s blood lead levels in Kabwe exceeded the recommended levels by five to ten times!
This is the toxic legacy of 90 years of mining. Kabwe sits on top of one of the world’s richest deposits of lead.
Now, working jointly with the Kabwe municipal council, Pure Earth is cleaning up Chowa. The remediation project is made possible by generous support from Pure Earth donors at the recent golf benefit fundraiser.
Pure Earth has trained local remediation crews to begin cleaning up 80 highly contaminated homes in their own community.
These include many houses in the western section of the neighborhood closest to the mines. Here, we found soil lead levels of over 4,000 ppm (the U.S. EPA standard for lead in residential soil is 400 ppm).
In highly contaminated areas, children, like this girl below, can be poisoned just by walking around barefoot.
The remediation team has already begun installing a special geotech fabric to act as a barrier to keep the contamination underground. Clean soil and rocks will be placed on top of the protective layer and flattened to create a lead-free surface that will not poison children as they play outside their homes.
We have used versions of this simple and cost-effective lead encapsulation solution in other lead contaminated communities in Vietnam and in Indonesia.
Workers, seen below, have also begun to lay down cement at the doorways of about 50 homes. With sealed doorsteps, homeowners sweeping dirt out of their homes will not disturb any toxic lead dust lurking in the unpaved ground.
Flooding during the rainy season is one of the ways lead-contaminated soil travels from the industrial area to the residential areas. This main drainage canal in the northern section of Chowa is so overgrown with brush it frequently overflows with lead-laden soil in the rainy season.
Many homes here recorded lead levels over 4,000 ppm.
In this field next to the main canal, we saw children running around waving their plastic bag flags tied to long sticks. They do not know it but they are standing on highly contaminated soil that is poisoning them. The smallest child is barefoot. He is at the most risk.
To contain and prevent the contaminated floodwaters from pouring out and polluting nearby homes and yards, we cleared the canal, which runs through most of the neighborhood. We also cleared ditches along six key roads to improve drainage.
Another major source of contamination is the lead dust released into the air by trucks, cars and pedestrians using the dusty dirt roads.
If additional funding becomes available, we plan to repave the road as this is effective in containing lead dust.
Education is always an integral part of our work. At this community gathering, we were able to inform neighbors of the work going on, and instruct them on simple protective measures they can take, such as sending children out to play with footwear on.
Phase 1 of the Chowa cleanup will be completed soon, with Phase 2 beginning next year. We are grateful for the support of the Kabwe municipal council. Plans are underway to replicate this cleanup to reclaim other parts of Kabwe.