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Lead levels were fatal, court told

By Benard Sanga | July 22nd 2020

Alfred Ogola and his family at Owino Uhuru in Mombasa. Some of the 300,000 residents of Owino Uhuru are ailing from diseases caused by lead poisoning. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

A report prepared by government agencies has revealed that residents of Owino Uhuru slum in Mombasa were exposed to deadly levels of lead. 

The water and soil around the informal settlement had up to 16,000 per cent more than the safe lead levels recommended by experts.

In some areas, tests showed contamination levels of up to 27,500 per cent.

“The acceptable levels under Environmental Protection Agency standards are set at 400mg/kg and 1,000mg/kg in areas with no children,” said Wandera Bideru from the Government Chemist.

The Director of Medical Services and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) also contributed to the report.

The metallurgy expert demonstrated that a battery smelting plant had caused unchecked poisoning of the ecosystem and residents before it was shut.

As a result, residents suffered from anaemia, weak bones and mental disability.

Wandera testified that acceptable EPA lead levels in dust are set at 40mg/per square foot. “At Owino Uhuru, open areas had a reading of 64,000mg/kg while other areas recorded up to 109,000mg/kg.”

Mg/kg represents the milligrams of lead in every kilogramme of soil.

Additionally, when toxicology tests on blood samples given by residents were conducted by the Government Chemist, they had such high levels of lead in their system that experts wondered how they were alive for so long and had not lapsed into coma.

Wandera said that lead is ordinarily inert and harmless, but it becomes lethal when it is combined with other chemicals and smelted in a factory.

He noted that elements or chemicals used in the plant reacted with other material to cause acid rain that corroded roofs in the slums.

These expert findings were presented in a case against the Government, National Environment Management Authority (Nema), Export Processing Zone Authority, Metal Refinery Limited, and Penguin Paper and Book Company.

Poisoning residents

The defendants were, jointly, found liable for negligence that led to the poisoning of thousands of slum residents through liquid, solid and gaseous effluents from the battery smelting plant.

In a landmark ruling, Justice Anne Omollo ruled in favour of the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action, which had sued on behalf of the afflicted residents.

Justice Omollo ordered the respondents to pay Sh1.3 billion to the victims in general damages within 90 days after finding that the State “ignored its constitutional and statutory obligations and duty of care to the slum residents and thus caused them to incur foreseeable damage”.

Metal Refinery Ltd and Penguin Paper and Book Company, which leased out the property, are to pay 25 per cent and five per cent of the Sh1.3 billion, respectively.

Nema will pay 45 per cent while the Ministry of Health and the Export Processing Zone Authority will each pay 10 per cent.

Omollo further directed the State and the firms to clean the soil and water and remove any waste deposited in the village in 120 days.

“In default, the sum of Sh700 million comes due and payable to the 10 petitioners. The Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action will coordinate the soil clean-up exercise,” said the judge.

Expert testimony adduced in the course of the four-year suit blamed Metal Refinery Ltd and failure by various agencies like Nema to enforce its statutory mandate to combat the contamination.

Some of the adults’ blood samples had 420 milligrams per decilitre (mg/dl) of lead as opposed to the acceptable level of 10mg/dl.

A toxicology report by the Director of Medical Services revealed that blood samples collected from children had 234mg/dl of lead yet the recommended level is 5mg/dl.

Skin disease

“The results were surprising as some people had such high levels that we wondered if they were still alive. When lead levels are at 200mg/dl, the person ought to be dead or in a coma,” testified Wandera two years ago.

The retired government chemist recommended that the residents should be relocated. “In a Dakar slum in Senegal called Sagar where 10 children died, lead levels were over 100 mg/dl.”

An analysis of toxicology samples from the slum concluded that many residents were contaminated by lead despite not working in the factory.

Dr Ajoni Adede said the exposure was mainly through inhalation or other forms of ingestion. Pregnant women also suffered miscarriages due to the toxicity while residents had symptoms ranging from skin disease and loss of appetite to poor memory.

The report from the Government Chemist also showed that the lead had killed trees growing near the factory.

Nema did not contest these revelations but instead accused the residents of relocating near the lead factory.

In 2015, doctors had recommended that residents undergo chelation therapy, a delicate and complicated medical procedure, to eliminate the heavy metal from their bodies.

In the same year, Nema had promised to undertake “a comprehensive inspection of Owino Uhuru and neighbouring villages of Bangladesh to determine whether they were contaminated”.

The agency said the process to determine if the area was contaminated would take long, adding that a report “will determine if there will be anti-commissioning and decontaminating of the area”.

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