Mining giant Anglo American to be sued for alleged lead poisoning in Zambia

A class action lawsuit has been filed against mining giant Anglo American on behalf of more than 100 000 people in Zambia believed to be suffering from lead poisoning. 

The affected people include children under 18 and girls and women who have been or may become pregnant in the future, according to a statement issued by attorneys for the plaintiffs on Wednesday morning. 

The application was brought by 13 representative plaintiffs and filed in the Gauteng High Court. They are represented by Mbuyisa Moleele, is a Johannesburg-based law firm led by Zanele Mbuyisa, and Leigh Day, an international law firm specialising in human rights and mass environmental claims.

According to the statement, the alleged poisoning is related to operations at the Kabwe zinc and lead mine, which was part of AASA group from 1925 until 1974. Kabwe was once home to Africa's largest lead mine and smelting operation. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say "generations of children" were poisoned by contamination of soil, dust, water and vegetation related to the smelter, ore processing and tailings dumps. 

'Alarming levels' of poisoning

"The claimants – principally young children – are suffering from alarming levels of lead poisoning which, depending on various factors including the blood lead level, causes a range of significant conditions, from psychological, intellectual and behavioural damage to serious and permanent physical damage to their bodily organs, neurological systems and fertility. In extreme cases, serious brain damage and deaths occur.

"In pregnant women, lead they ingested as children is absorbed into their bones and released during pregnancy. Women are also exposed to lead during pregnancy from the surrounding environment. Lead is known to cross the placenta, resulting in the unborn child being subjected to the same concentration of lead as the mother. Not only can the baby’s health be damaged, lead causes pregnant women to have a higher risk of pre-eclampsia; gestational hypertension and miscarriage."

The application seeks compensation as well as blood screening for children and pregnant women in Kabwe.

Ownership of the mine was transferred to Zambian state-owned company ZCCM Investments Holdings in 1974. The Zambian government, with support from the World Bank, in 2015 kicked off a $60-million initiative aimed at rehabilitating the Kabwe region, among others. In a statement issued at the time, ZCCM said the initiative was "aimed at mitigating the impact of lead poisoning on human health and the environment", specifying the period from 1994 - 2010. 

The statement from the plaintiffs' attorneys, however, emphasises pollution from 1925 - 1974, when it was part of AASA. 

Lead was mined in the area since 1906. 

In an emailed response to Fin24, Anglo American said it would review the claims and "vigorously defend" its position. It was "at all times far from being a majority owner" of the Kabwe mine, it added. 

"In the early 1970s the company that owned the mine was nationalised by the Government of Zambia and for more than 20 years thereafter the mine was operated by a state-owned body until its closure in 1994," the mining company said. 

* This story was updated at 17:30 on 21 October to include comment from Anglo American. 

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