(Nairobi) – Thousands of people in a poor urban district outside Mombasa face serious health consequences from toxic lead from a battery recycling plant, Human Rights Watch said today. The crisis is the result of the Kenyan government’s failure to adequately regulate the lead smelter in the Owino Uhuru district.
Human Rights Watch released a film, Kenya: Factory Poisons Community, documenting the health and environmental damage caused by the smelter, threats to activists working on the issue, and efforts by local residents to seek justice. At least three workers at the smelter have died from lead poisoning, and the community of 3,000 people remains contaminated. The government should provide lead poisoning testing, clean up homes and public spaces in the community, and provide compensation for victims, Human Rights Watch said.
“At least three people have died and thousands of others are under threat from toxic lead because the Kenyan authorities didn’t enforce their own environmental laws and regulations,” said Jane Cohen, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This is an urgent and on-going crisis that needs immediate government action.”
The government’s failure to regulate the smelter began with its opening in 2007. Although Kenyan law requires an environmental impact assessment before an industrial facility can open, the owners of the smelter did not conduct the assessment until after it began operating.
A government investigation that began in 2009 found that the smelter had violated numerous laws and that its operations were endangering the health of workers and nearby residents. Although the smelter was closed briefly, it reopened with few changes to its operations, workers and residents told Human Rights Watch. Workers said they didn’t have adequate occupational health protections. And community members said there were no safeguards to protect the surrounding residential area, despite their protests that their health was being affected.
Worldwide, toxic pollution from mining, lead smelters, and industrial dumps affect the health of more than 125 million people, rivaling malaria or tuberculosis (TB). Lead is increasingly recognized as a global threat to health and child development, as it is highly toxic and can interrupt the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children are particularly susceptible. The World Health Organization says that high levels of lead exposure in children can cause brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage, as well as permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Former workers in the smelter described working in toxic conditions with little or no protective gear. Several workers said that managers openly told them that they were going to die because of the dangerous nature of the work, yet offered neither adequate protective gear nor medical treatment.
“The Kenyan authorities in Mombasa authorized the smelter as part of a program to stimulate investment,” Cohen said. “But investment should not come at the expense of the lives and health of workers and residents.”
Since the smelter began operations in 2007, residents in Owino Uhuru say they have experienced an increase in miscarriages and impotence, and parents told Human Rights Watch that their children always seem sick. Blood tests performed on some children in the community in 2009 found high levels of lead. No significant local source of lead has been identified other than the smelter.
After discovering in 2009 that her son was sick from lead poisoning, Phyllis Omido, a former office worker in the smelter, began organizing residents to write letters to the Public Health Agency and the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) informing them of the situation. After waiting for months for a government response, she organized peaceful protests in the streets of Mombasa.
Police arrested Phyllis and a number of community members, forcing them to stand trial on the trumped up charges of incitement of violence and unlawful assembly. Eventually, they were acquitted. She told Human Rights Watch that following these protests, her life was threatened by unidentified people. Human Rights Watch has been working with Omido and monitoring her security since 2011.
“Wastewater flows out of a hole in the smelter wall and drains into the community,” Cohen said. “When Phyllis Omido and other residents peacefully protested the pollution and the lack of government response, they were threatened, harassed, arrested, and beaten up by thugs.”
The smelter in Owino Uhuru operated almost continuously between 2007 and 2014, despite evidence, described in the government’s 2009 report, that it endangered the health of its workers and nearby residents, and despite Kenyan laws that should have provided protection. .
In early 2014 the smelter closed its operations next to Owino Uhuru and moved elsewhere. Although the smelter is no longer polluting Owino Uhuru, the toxic effects of lead remain in the community. Children have not been tested for lead poisoning and still live in contaminated homes. Children and workers who were exposed to high levels of lead have not received medical treatment. The families of those workers who died have not received any compensation.
The Kenyan government has strong environmental laws and regulations meant to protect citizens from environmental degradation and harm. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act has regulations preventing industries from releasing toxic effluent and from polluting the air, and specifies that an Environmental Impact Assessment must be undertaken before operations can begin. According to the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, those responsible for pollution that causes either people or the environment harm will face imprisonment or financial penalties.
Both the Environmental Management and Coordination Act and the Kenyan constitution specify the right to a healthy environment. The constitution also guarantees citizens a right to fair working conditions. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Kenya is a state party, requires Kenya to respect and protect the right of all people to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.
Kenya is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both treaties oblige the government to protect the health of its citizens, with a special emphasis on children. Kenya has also ratified multiple International Labour Organization conventions, which provide for workers who are injured on the job.
“The government could have avoided the massive environmental contamination of Owino Uhuru and related deaths if local and national officials had followed their own laws,” Cohen said. “The authorities need to give residents of Owino Uhuru the protection and care they deserve and need.”