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The East African : July 28th 2014
36 TOXIC METAL IN KENYA’S COAST The smelter is gone, but slum dwellers still paying price of lead poisoning Residents of Mombasa’s Owino Uhu≥u a≥ea a≥e su≠e≥ing fatal health conditions due to pollution By ALLAN OLINGO The EastAfrican H e stares long and hard into space. On an old wooden ta- ble in front of him, lie X-ray files, copies of medical reports and a few drugs. It is obvious that life has taken a toll on the old man who is now in poor health and uses crutches to move around. The photos hanging on the walls of the room speak of a robust youth full of life and smiles — a stark contrast to the dreary man seated before us. Daudi Mahala, 69, is among residents of the Owino Uhuru slum in Mombasa on Kenya’s Coast, who have been affected by lead poisoning. On the day we visit him, he has just bought painkillers worth Ksh800 ($9) to relieve him of pain in his joints. The former Kenya Ports Authority employee is a bitter man, given that this was his retirement home; a place he hoped would offer him the peace and sense of relaxation he needed in his senior years. Now, it is a death trap. “When I built this house here in 1999, it was to be my retirement home. Things, however, changed in 2007 when I started falling sick. I began experiencing pains in my joints, losing my memory and found myself constantly coughing,” Mr Mahala says as he struggles to find a comfortable position on the sofa. The old man says one of his doctors performed a blood test on him and discovered that he was suffering from lead poisoning. A final test showed that he had 24 microgrammes per decilitre of blood. He understood neither how the lead had found its way into his body nor the ramifications. “My doctor asked if I stayed close to a factory and that is when it hit me that the battery smelting factory behind my house was hurting me. I felt betrayed because it set up shop long after I had started living here,” he says. Things started falling into place. He had replaced the iron sheet roofing on his house twice since the factory began operations in 2006 due to severe rusting. At one point, residents of Owino Uhuru complained of the smoke coming from the factory, and the chimney that directed it away from their homes was extended. Close to Mr Mahala’s house we meet eight-year-old Kelvin Musyoka in the company of his grandmother. It’s a Wednesday and he is not in school. But that doesn’t seem to bother him much. He appears absent minded until he spots our camera and his face brightens. Like Mr Mahala, Kelvin has high levels of lead poisoning, but his grandmother, 49-yearold Scholastika Shikanga, has resigned herself to his fate due to the cost implications of taking care of him. Costly medication “I am a casual worker with four children and seven grandchildren in my care. I don’t have the money to take good care of Kelvin and foot his medical bills. I depend on well-wishers,” she says. “Kelvin is the only one among these children who has been tested. I know the rest are affected too but I cannot afford the test. Even if I test them, how will I treat them?” Ms Shikanga says forlounly. Kelvin started falling sick in 2010. He fainted frequently, complained of constant abdominal pains, weakness in the joints and suffered from memory loss. Ms Shikanga sought the assistance of the local parish priest, Father Gabriel Dolan, who paid the Ksh9,000 ($101) needed for the blood test. “The tests are done in three phases within a span of six months, and in all the three instances, Kelvin’s lead levels were found to be too high. I was told that the battery smelting factory adjacent to our house was the cause of all his troubles,” Ms Shikanga says. The Centre for Disease Con- trol defines blood lead levels of above 10 microgrammes per decilitre of blood as toxic. In Kelvins case, the first test returned 27 microgrammes per decilitre of blood; the second, 29 microgrammes per decilitre The EastAfrican OUTLOOK JULY 26 - AUGUST 1, 2014 Environmental activists led by Phylis Omido protest the presence of a lead smelting factory in their Owino Ohuru neighbourhood on Kenya’s Coast in this picture taken on April 25, 2012. Pictures: Laban Walloga. of blood and the final test returned 32 microgrammes per decilitre of blood. These days Kelvin is in and out of school. He has difficulties learning because of the constant memory lapses he suffers. As you walk into the Owino Uhuru slum, you will notice a stream that flows across children’s playgrounds and in between the houses. Residents fear it is contaminated with remnants of lead and acid deposits from the battery smelting factory, which was shut down early this year. “This water flows into a stream whose water we use for drinking, cooking and other household chores,” says Anastacia Mwakobe, a community leader who was at the forefront in advocating for the closure of the factory. “Our children also get skin infections when they play with it.” We bump into Alfred Omollo, a community elder. He is just from hospital, to get his eye dressed after a surgery the previous week. He has lost sight in one of his eyes, experiences chest pains and is finding the cost of medication too costly. Like his neighbours, Mr Omollo isn’t amused at the turn of events in the area. “This neighbourhood was a relatively peaceful place until the factory was set up in 2006. The space it occupied was a vehicle manufacturing plant, where some of the residents earned their daily bread,” says Mr Omollo. “The vehicle assembly plant was closed. This didn’t bother us much; after all, it was a new investment that would see us earn an income.” But by the time the smelt- ers’ machines were turned off, the factory had polluted the environment and killed workers. At least three workers from the factory are said to have died from lead poisoning, according to Human Rights Watch. Today, the community of close to 3,000 people continues to feel the effects of the factory’s operations. They potentially face serious health complications due to lead poisoning. Fainting spates, seizures, convulsions, pains in the joints and muscles, coughing, poor vision and still births are some of the concerns the residents are raising. Phylis Omido, a former work- er at the smelter turned activist says that she took the initiative to educate the residents and workers within the facility on lead poisoning and urged them to be tested because she felt they were working and living in a death trap. Ms Omido says in 2009 she organised residents to protest the existence of the smelting factory within a residential area, calling for its closure, after discovering that her son was sick from lead poisoning through breastfeeding.
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