Solve pollution. Save lives. Protect the planet.

Zambia (Kabwe) – Lead Mines

the details…
Key pollutant
Smelting, mining

Direct contact, airborne, waterborne,

Population affected
Children Under 6 Affected
DALYs averted
Smelting, mining
Cost of project
$45,000 leveraged into a $20 million loan from World Bank/NDF
Project Partners

World Bank/NDF, Copperbelt Environment Project, Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation

Our team went back to Kabwe in July 2014 to follow-up and found much still needed to be done.  Read the blog post for a recap of the site visit, environmental and health assessment.

Below is a description of past project history.

The Problem

At Blacksmith’s urging, the World Bank committed significant funding to the Government to remove toxic lead from the soil of this city of 300,000 people. Legacy pollution from a lead mine has poisoned the city, rendering its population severely sick and incapacitated from chronic lead exposure. While providing independent oversight for the World Bank clean-up, Blacksmith continued its awareness program for citizens to reduce their exposure through altering everyday activities.

Kabwe, the second largest city in Zambia with a population of 300,000, is located about 130km north of the nation’s capital, Lusaka. It is one of six towns situated around the Copperbelt, once Zambia’s thriving industrial base. In 1902, rich deposits of potentially dangerous lead were discovered in the mine and smelter located in the center of the town. Ore veins with lead concentrations as high as 20 percent have been mined deep into the earth and a smelting operation was set up to process the ore. Mining and smelting operations were running almost continuously up until 1994 without the government addressing the potential danger of lead. The mine and smelter, owned by the now privatized Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines, is no longer operating but has left a city with poison and toxicity from hazardous concentrations of lead in the soil and water.

During the operation there were no pollution laws regulating emissions from the mine and smelter plant. In turn, air, soil, and vegetation were all subjected to contamination, and ultimately, over some decades, millions of human lives were also affected. Some recent findings reveal the extent to which lead–one of the most potent neurotoxins known to man–has effected the health of Kabwe citizens. In the U.S., normal blood levels of lead are less than 10 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter). Symptoms of acute poisoning occur at blood levels of 20 and above, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, and leading to muscle spasms and kidney damage. Levels of over ten are considered unhealthy and levels in excess of 120 can often lead to death. In Kabwe, blood concentrations of 300 ug/dL have been recorded in children and records show average blood levels of children range between 60 and 120 ug/dL.

Children that play in the soil and young men that scavenge the mines for scraps of metal are most susceptible to lead produced by the mine and smelter. A small waterway runs from the mine to the center of town and had been used to carry waste from the once active smelter. For years there were no restrictions on the waterway, and in some instances local children use it for bathing. In addition to water exposure, workers are frequently exposed to lead by inhaling the dust that accumulated in their own backyards.

Health Impact

Whether lead enters the body through being inhaled or swallowed, its adverse effects are the same. Lead mainly targets the nervous system. In adults, long-term exposure may cause numbness or weakness in the hands and feet, anemia, and high blood pressure. Exposure at high levels can cause brain damage and reduced fertility. Children, including developing fetuses, are exceptionally vulnerable to lead poisoning because their still-growing bodies retain the toxin for longer than adults. The risks for them begin with higher rates of miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight, and continue to harm them throughout life due to brain damage and mental retardation. (ATSDR – ToxFAQs™)

Project Activity

The Copperbelt Environment Project has begun to implement a set of remediation measures to address the impacts of lead on the environment and particularly the health of children.

Blacksmith’s local partners have nearly completed a study that analyzed the extent of contamination in soil, air, surface and ground water, crops, and wild plants and animals. A comprehensive human blood survey involving a total of 2,373 people across all ages was also undertaken; out of this sample, 1,342 were children under 7.

The Kabwe Risk Communication Program

Parallel to this study, the CEP is implementing a comprehensive Risk Communication program and other associated development programs. Since its inception, the CEP has been implementing an intensive community outreach program aimed at raising awareness as well as providing simple messages on how to avoid lead exposure. This program also strengthens local community organizations and coordinates them with the government initiative. Working closely with the local authorities, 10 community development staff have been attached to the CEP, and its actions are based on a “community facilitator model,” where community facilitators or volunteers from each effected area are closely involved in the project implementation. These community facilitators have been trained in lead education and humanitarian development, and they serve as link between the CEP and the communities. The Kabwe Lead Education Program is also being implemented in the schools, where the CEP is working closely with the Ministry of Education to raise awareness of the more than 20,000 children in the areas significantly polluted with lead. Through this program, a localized curriculum on lead and the environment is being developed and will be used in the school system. This program will also include the promotion of lead safe environment through the Green is Clean campaign that is promoting planting of grass as a means to reduce lead exposure through soil and dust. A detailed Integrated Case Management Program (ICM) has also been developed and is being implemented for purposes of reducing the elevated blood lead levels in children. Presently the ICM is targeting children found with elevated blood leads during the Kabwe Scoping and Design blood lead survey. A total of 160 children with blood leads above 45 ug/dl are targeted for household ICM program. Out of these, 38 children with blood leads above 70 ug/dl are already on the programme and the CEP will continue to scale up the number of children under the ICM.

In support of all these efforts, the CEP has also embarked on a Water Project to address the critical shortage of water. Inadequate access to water was identified as a critical barrier to behaviour modification as all positive behaviours require water. The project is also developing play areas and parks to provide safe, lead-free play areas for young children across all impacted communities.

To improve access to information, Public Information Centres (PICs) have also been built and two have since been opened to the public. The PICs will improve access to information on lead pollution and other cross cutting issues, as well as serve as education centre. (credit

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At Blacksmith’s urging, the World Bank has committed significant funding to remove toxic lead from the soil of this city of 300,000 people. Legacy pollution from a lead mine has poisoned the city, rendering its population severely sick and incapacitated from chronic lead exposure. While providing independent oversight for the World Bank clean-up, Blacksmith will also continue its successful 4 year old awareness program for citizens to  mitigate their exposure through everyday activities.