A class action lawsuit targeting mining giant Anglo American over alleged health problems caused by lead mines in central Zambia will hear who can participate in the case in November.
The legal challenge filed in South Africa accuses the British-listed mining company of effectively poisoning villages in Kabwe, north of the capital Lusaka.
“The way in which the mining operations were conducted in such close proximity to residents has resulted in huge levels of contamination of the soil,” says Richard Meeran, solicitor for Leigh Day in London, adding that this “resulted in poisoning of the population, in particular young children”.
Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, a South African law firm, and British solicitors Leigh Day contend that in villages in and around Kabwe, both children and adults living in the shadow of an old lead mine have experienced heightened health problems due to the high levels of lead in the area’s topsoil and water supplies.
The suit, filed against Anglo America’s South Africa subsidiary, represents 180,000 women and children in Kabwe.
Some 13 plaintiffs are representing their case.
November’s hearing will determine which international organisations can participate if the case is accepted by the court.
Amnesty International has been accepted by both sides to participate in the hearings, but Human Rights Watch has been excluded by the defendants.
“There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects,” according to the World Health Organisation.
The US Centers for Disease Control characterizes 3.5 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) as a toxic level.
For some of the 180,000 people in the Kabwe class action suit, the numbers are 10 times higher.
“Some studies have shown average levels for young children living in villages close to Kabwe, in excess of 50 µg/dL,” says Leigh Day’s Meeran.
The levels of lead in Kabwe residents’ blood “are of a magnitude that is completely unheard of anywhere else and wouldn’t be tolerated,” he told RFI.
A recent class action suit on a lead poisoning case in Flint,Michigan, USA, demonstrated that children had up to 10 µg/dL in their blood.
Their case was won last year.
The risk of lead poisoning is especially acute in children and pregnant women and can lead to death.
The toxicity affects the brain and nervous system of young children, while pregnant women exposed to high levels of lead can suffer from miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature delivery.
“Our medical experts… have all concluded that they suffered from lead poisoning with various medical consequences,” says Meeran, adding that Anglo American says none have suffered from lead poisoning.
“Amongst the group of 13, we have two who have levels over 100, and several who have levels over 50,” he says.
However, none of Anglo’s medical experts have examined the 13 plaintiffs.
Anglo American did not respond to RFI’s request for comment.
The Kabwe mine stopped operations in 1994, but the contamination continues.
And while the first 50 years of operation was under Anglo American, between 1974 and 1994 the mine was run by ZCCM, a Zambian government company.
Dr Ian Lawrence, who worked at the Kabwe mine from 1969 to 1970, contacted Leigh Day solicitors after the class action was filed.
“I became deeply concerned at the number of deaths amongst children under the age of five in the residential township where local employees lived,” said Lawrence in the affidavit.
After taking samples from 500 local children – and finding them to have astronomical levels of lead in their blood – he reported it to his former employer.
“The difference in the number of deaths between mine children and local children was reasonably significant, so much so that I could not understand why no one else had raised the issue or carried out an investigation.”
According to Meeran, Anglo Amercian hired a specialist from Manchester University, UK, to look into the doctor’s report in 1970: “He confirmed the findings, he made recommendations about what should be done, including replacement of topsoil, and relocation of one of the communities, neither of which was done by the company on economic grounds, for financial reasons.”
Another study conducted in 1971 by Dr A.R.L. Clark, prompted by the deaths of eight Kabwe children suspected of lead poisoning, is cited in the evidence presented in the class action suit.
Clark’s study, which he later developed into a thesis, indicated that high levels of lead came from the mine and smelter and leaked into the soil.
“That was all known and had all occurred before the mine was handed over to ZCCM,” says Meeran.
They knew the mine was operating in a very unsafe manner.
“Anglo in its evidence claims that ZCCM operated more unsafely than they did. And ZCCM was grossly negligent, according to them. But there’s no evidence at all that the situation got any worse at ZCCM,” he adds.
Anglo contends in its defence that even though it knew about the lead contamination before it handed over the mine, ZCCM is the last operator, so the one liable.
However, Meeran points out that two-thirds of the lead production at the mine took place during the Anglo American era, after 1925 and before 1974.
Lawyers for the Kabwe community are looking for compensation for those who have been affected by lead poisoning, but also to secure the future for those living in the area and the next generations.
“That includes the establishment of a medical monitoring system for the population, particularly for children but also for women who may become pregnant in the future and therefore are at risk,” says Meeran.
He adds that as this is also an environmental disaster, an effective cleanup and system of rehabilitating the villages is also key.
The lawsuit was initially filed in South Africa in October 2020, and now the court must certify that the case is appropriate to be dealt with as a class action.
In November, “A whole group of UN bodies are applying to intervene, but they [Anglo American] are currently opposing their interventions,” says Meeran, listing a number of special rapporteurs and working groups.
The hearings have been fixed for late January, when the court will hear arguments on the certification, and whether the 13 defendants will be able to have their day in court.