CDC’s MMWR Features Our Findings on Lead in Kabwe’s Children

The latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the main resource for key public health information and recommendations from the CDC, features field notes from our July trip to Kabwe, where we found devastating levels of lead poisoning in children.

kid in tub IMG_5293 copy

With a population of approximately 203,000, Kabwe is located in Zambia’s Copperbelt.

For nearly 100 years, lead mining and smelting operations contaminated the soil in the community.

Our Blacksmith/Pure Earth team, which included Dr. Jack Caravanos from the City University of New York School of Public Health, and Green Cross Switzerland, conducted extensive surface soil testing across 12 neighborhoods, and blood lead testing of 196 children aged two to eight years in six communities adjacent to the now-closed Kabwe mines and smelters.

Testing the playground for toxins.

Testing the playground for toxins.

We found that 26.5% of the children recorded blood lead levels higher than 65.0 µg/dL. The reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated is 5 µg/dL. The CDC recommends that lead chelation therapy be considered when a child has a blood lead level ≥45 µg /dL.

Read the full article in MMWR.


Kabwe’s Children’s Silent Struggles

This guest post is from Ben Barber, who visited Kabwe with the Blacksmith for a Pure Earth team in July.


We arrived last July in one of the world’s most toxic hotspots — Kabwe, a city of about 200,000 just two hours drive north of Zambia’s capita Lusaka.

We checked into the Elephant Head Hotel, most likely built during British rule when Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia. At first, during a quick walk around the center of the city, it was hard to notice anything really out of the normal.

Shoppers wound their way through the markets and past sidewalk vendors of everything from newspapers to fruits and vegetables to cellphone cards. A friendly and active buzz of activity made me forget that the city contains a huge lead smelter and mine. They have been shut down for more than 10 years, but their legacy slowly became clear as we walked the sandy streets of the neighborhoods near the closed mine.

I went with a small team of three colleagues from the Blacksmith Institute, also known as Pure Earth, a New York-based non-profit that identifies and then helps clean up toxic waste sites in developing countries that contain lead, mercury, chromium, pesticides and other dangerous substances. We quickly made contact with local health and environment officials who arranged for us to test the blood of around 200 small children – to determine if the lead from the mine had been accumulating in the bodies of the most vulnerable residents.

The next morning we arrived at a tidy little cinderblock clinic. Dozens of anxious and friendly parents held their children close at hand, eager to get their blood tested for lead.

A Zambian health worker and a Blacksmith health expert pricked the tiny fingers. Some screaming ensued but tears dried up quickly when each kid got a piece of candy.  The team quickly drew blood samples into sterile containers. I was assigned the task of wiping away excess blood and applying band aids.

After two or three hours in the packed and noisy clinic we found we had to turn away the mothers with their children who continued to arrive seeking a blood test.

In the afternoon, we began using a hand-held x-ray machine that tested soil for lead as well as other toxic substances. Following a pattern monitored by continuous geo spatial readings we prepared a list of readings. The soil readings were off the charts – hundreds of time above what health officials in Zambia and the U.S. consider acceptable and safe.

A local teacher in Kabwe, Wisdom Kuanda, wrote in a letter to the Zambia Daily Mail July 23 that “Kabwe is indeed one of the 10 most polluted towns in the world.”

“As a teacher I have observed poor memory retention in most of the pupils who were born in Kabwe as compared to those who just come on transfer. I have personally linked this problem to lead poisoning.

We saw the tailings – highly toxic piles of lead-rich ore that had been dumped over the nearly 100 years when the smelter was operation. These small hills of stone and gravel up to 50 feet high are the legacy that is getting into the children’s blood.

Just 50 feet from those tailing piles dozens of school children raced barefoot over a sandy football pitch, most likely unaware that they are picking up high lead from the dust all around them. Although 400 parts per million is the safe limit in Zambia, we found 10,000 to 15,000 parts per million.

We had been prepared to see the damage caused by lead poisoning but it was not easy to spot anything unusual. It was when we talked to nurses, teachers and parents that we learned how lead affects children there: it damages the developing neurological system, making it hard for children to learn and behave in a classroom.

Lead poisoning is often a silent disease – symptoms can be subtle such as degraded ability to learn, stomach upsets and other less-than- catastrophic effects.

So people continue to build houses near the mine, literally in the shadow of the towering slag piles. In Makalulu and other neighborhoods where thousands of children and adults lack resources to relocate, health teams told parents to prevent the children from playing outside. This has been inadequate and ineffective.

“This is a public health crisis – these are the highest blood lead readings I have ever seen,” said team member Dr. Jack Caravanos, Blacksmith/Pure Earth technical advisor and CUNY professor.

“Part of the population has acute lead poisoning, above the level that causes mental impairment.”

Lackson Mwanza , head teacher at the David Ramusho School, told me “dealing with lead will help improve mental capacity of the children.”

When we asked the parents if they knew about the danger from lead, most said they knew something but not enough to prevent their kids from getting lead into their bodies.

People are so poor in Kabwe that they had resorted to taking the lead tailings into their houses to try and extract some lead for sale.

And the government is considering reopening the smelter for a new run at lead production.

Gibson Chileshe, 62, was walking past the mine and told me “some of us are against reopening production at the mine, but people want jobs.” Many have registered to get a job if it reopens.



(PHOTOS) Transforming Agbogbloshie: From Toxic E-Waste Dump Into Model Recycling Center

DSC03046On October 9, Agbogbloshie, Ghana – one of the world’s largest e-waste dumpsites – got something new.

The sense of excitement grew when residents saw a group of about a dozen men carrying a towering sign through town before planting it in the ground and raising it up in a Herculean effort, with six men on each side pushing and pulling.

The 20-foot tall sign announced the launch of a pilot project – the opening of a new e-waste recycling facility that could transform the way recyclers work in one of the worst polluted places on earth.

“Everyone is talking about how this is just the beginning,” said Kira Traore, the program director for Africa at Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth.

“I think we are seeing a real commitment to changing the e-waste recycling industry.”

The new e-waste facility is equipped with four automated machines that can strip or pull apart plastic coated cables and wires of various sizes scavenged from the e-waste dump to extract copper and other valuable materials within without burning.

Stripping e-waste can save lives by reducing the vast amount of toxic fumes that are released by burning, poisoning thousands (an estimated 250,000 people are at risk) and contaminating the community’s land, water and food.

With the opening of this new facility, recyclers all over Agbogbloshie now have a safer option.

“Burning e-waste was and still is, to many, the established way of working here. That is why we are grateful to see so much support from the recyclers and residents of Agbogbloshie for this new recycling facility,” said Yaw Amoyaw-Osei, Founder/Executive Director of GreenAd, one of Blacksmith/Pure Earth’s partners on the project.

“There was a lot of distrust initially. We had to convince the recyclers that we did not want to take away their livelihoods. We just want to find a non-toxic way for them to do their jobs. This is the first step towards stopping the mass poisoning of Agbogbloshie residents.”

Dromo-naa Folkloric dance ensemble at the ceremony

Drummers celebrate the opening of the new e-waste recycling facility.

It is difficult to miss the new facility.  Consisting of three low-cost shipping containers that are painted a bright and cheery blue, the recycling center stands out against the scorched and burnt landscape.

Bright balloons formed an archway welcoming all into the new center during the grand opening.

There was drumming and dancing, and school children, who put on a play about the dangers of e-waste.


The team – Blacksmith Institute/Pure Earth and local partners Green Advocacy Ghana (GreenAd) and the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association (GASDA) – was there along with local VIPS and stakeholders including the Deputy Minister of the Environment, the Director of the EPA, and representatives from the World Bank, UNDP, GIZ, GRATIS Institute, ProLink, the  National Youth Authority, the Ministry of Energy, the national Ghana electric company, the Customs Department, and EcoBank.

The recycling facility went up in much the same way as the sign that announced its opening – it was a collaborative effort.

“It was amazing to see so many of our supporters and stakeholders coming together for the opening,” said Yaw.

“We are receiving offers to help us bring in more machines, install sanitation equipment like a washing station and bathroom facility for the workers, provide business training, additional funding, and other means of support that will help ensure the success of this recycling facility.”

DSC03228 (smaller)

The crowd streams in to check out the new e-waste recycling facility after the grand opening.


Not far away, evidence of toxic burning.

Blacksmith/Pure Earth and partners have been piloting various technologies to aid recyclers in replacing the burning process since 2008. Hand wire-stripping tools introduced in 2010 were met with a small-degree of success. With the new automated machines, the team has high hopes of starting a mini “revolution” in the way recyclers work.


Workers at the new e-waste recycling facility demonstrate how the machines work to strip wires without burning.

“This time, the recyclers are asking more questions about the machines and are offering more feedback and insights about the way they work,” said Kira.

“They are open about their needs because they know that we rely on their expertise. And we are very open about this being a pilot project, that we are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

This pilot is a project of the Global Alliance of Health and Pollution

See more PHOTOS of the opening and Agbogbloshie

Support for the project comes from the European Commission and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) through the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution (GAHP),with additional funding for scaling up the project from Addax and Oryx Foundation. The National Youth Authority donated use of the land for the recycling center, with additional support from theMinistry of Environment and Ghana’s EPA, Ghana Health Services, and the Comic Relief Fund.

Press release: Change and hope comes to Agbogbloshie, Oct 22, 2014

Learn more:

Agbogbloshie has been called one of the world’s worst polluted places. The burning of e-waste releases copious amounts of toxic fumes, which then spreads throughout the community.  An estimated 40,000 to as many as 250,000 people are at risk.

“Everywhere you look you see pieces of circuit boards, televisions, refrigerators, irons, etc. The toxic chemicals released are spread throughout the area when it rains and of course spread to the homes each evening. What especially troubled me was the path of the toxic smoke that floats right into the food market. So whatever doesn’t get into your lungs can now settle onto the food supply of Accra.”

— Dr. Jack Caravanos. Read more of his first-hand account in Report from Ghana’s Agbogbloshie E-Wasteland.

On previous visits, the Blacksmith/Pure Earth team has documented the vast amount of contamination. Samples taken around the perimeter of Agbogbloshie, found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in soil. The US EPA standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm. Another set of samples taken from five workers on the site found aluminum, copper, iron, and lead levels above ACGIH TLV guidelines. For instance, it was found that one volunteer had aluminum exposure levels of 17 mg/m3 compared with the ACGIH TLV guideline of 1.0 mg/m(read more).

The Story of A Mother and the Five Children She Lost

Senegal women

*Click here to read the story of Seynabou M.

Seynabou M. is a member of the poisoned poor.

The poisoned poor live and work in some of the world’s worst polluted places.

Often they are not aware that their community is polluted, even if it is the result of their toxic jobs. Many do not understand why their children are dying.

Pollution is the largest cause of death in the developing world.

94% of the burden of disease from pollution falls on the poor in low- and middle-income countries that are least equipped to deal with the problem.

  • Pollution causes 10 million deaths a year
  • kills more people than cancer globally
  • and causes three times more deaths than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

This is just one story out of millions. This is the story of a mother and the five children she lost.





Snapshots of Progress in 2013 – AFRICA

  • Livelihood Training For Women
  • Uncovering Senegal’s Invisible Pollution Problem

Last year, Blacksmith returned to Senegal to conduct livelihood training for women so that they will not have to go back to the deadly job of backyard battery recycling in order to sustain their families. In 2009, over 32 children in Senegal died from lead poisoning caused by the activity.

Also, for the first time, Blacksmith began identifying and documenting polluted communities in Senegal.

“Unfortunately, pollution is often invisible until a tragedy strikes. Before the outbreak, there was little understanding of the problem of toxic pollution in Senegal. That is why identifying and assessing polluted sites is key. If you don’t count them, in a sense they don’t seem to exist,” says Kira Traore, Blacksmith’s program director for Africa.

In 2013, Blacksmith identified, assessed and added 103 hotspots in Africa to our database of polluted places, bringing the number of sites we have documented in Africa to 655.

Training Women in Senegal


Next month, Blacksmith returns to Senegal to provide livelihood training to women so that they will not have to go back to the dangerous job of backyard battery recycling–the activity that triggered the tragic lead poisoning outbreak in 2008 that killed 32 children in Thiaroye Sur Mer.

“Women should not have to choose between earning a living wage and the safety of their children,” says Kira Traore, Blacksmith’s program director for Africa. “By teaching them alternative income-generating activities, we are providing them with a long-term solution, and ensuring that they will not return to illegal battery recycling.”

Over 100 women will attend two training sessions held at the local youth center.

The first training session will focus on how to fortify grains to increase nutrition and crop yield. The women will be trained on mill processing techniques, and will have access to two mills that will be maintained by the local women’s association.

At the second training, the women will be introduced to hydroponics so they can grow crops without soil, using a hydroponics table filled with mineral nutrient solutions.  Because the water used stays within the system, this method reduces the amount of water needed, which is essential during the dry season. Hydroponics will allow the women to grow crops year round without being dependent on soil quality or weather.

These techniques will not only help the women feed their family, but also produce extra food for sale, providing them with a sustainable source of income.

Following the lead poisoning tragedy, Blacksmith conducted house-to-house cleanup (see photos) and taught villagers about the dangers of lead. Over 100 hones were cleaned, and  3000 cubic meters of contaminated soil was carted away.  Today, lead levels in the soil of the affected villages are below the U.S. standard of 400 ppm, down from 200,000 ppm measured at the height of the outbreak.

For many men and women around the world, recycling old car batteries by hand to extract lead is the one of the few ways of making a living. They recycle the batteries at home, breaking them in their backyards, smelting lead in their kitchens.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Background: Cleanup in Senegal

In March 2008, Blacksmith Institute was contacted by the Senegal Ministry of Environment following the sudden deaths of 32 children under age five in the community of Ngagne Diaw, Thiayore-Sur-Mer, located on the southern end of the Cape Vert Peninsula in Dakar. The children all died from acute lead poisoning due to constant exposure to lead dust in the air, soil and water. The source of lead was quickly determined to be the informal recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB).

Recycling lead this way was a popular way for women to supplement domestic income.  Lead was used and sold as weights to hold down fishing nets. The women would break open the batteries by hand in their backyards, and melt the lead in pots and pans in their kitchens, often with children playing nearby. Lead dust covered almost everything in their homes and community, poisoning everyone.

But children begin to die after a ‘lead-rush’ increased the exposure to children at exponential rates. A newly opened lead smelter offered $100 per day for women and children to collect and sift through lead waste. In just one hour, the women were able to earn the same daily wages as someone who worked all day in the market.

Blacksmith worked to address the emergency with a three-phase remediation strategy. The project had two distinct goals: in the short-term, to completely remove the threat of lead from Ngagne Diaw; and in the long-term, to ensure the responsible collection and recycling of used lead-acid batteries so that lead from this source is no longer a threat in Senegal. These three phases of the project were successfully completed in February 2013.