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the goldman prize and the just beginning fight against lead poisoning

In late April the 6 regional winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the ‘Green Nobel’, were announced. Phyllis Omido, a Kenyan single mother won the $175,000 prize in the Africa region for her 7 year effort to shut down a used lead acid battery (ULAB) recycling factory in the informal settlement of Owino-Uhuru in Mombasa, the largest coastal city in Kenya. Soon after the prize was announced, the government machinery that months back had promised to conduct blood tests on residents to establish blood lead levels finally creaked into life.

The devastating and permanent consequences of lead exposure, especially to children, are widely known in the highly industrialised world and there exists legislation to limit lead contents in everything from blood to paint, soil, air and water. Even blood lead levels below 5µg/dL, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reference level, have been shown to have negative effects to children. But the harmful nature of lead is often little known in many low and middle income countries such as Kenya and other African countries; and they continue to suffer from this invisible assailant.

Smoke stack of the lead recycling factory in Owino Uhuru, Mombasa. Residents said their rooves have been rusting at a faster rate since the factory opened up.

An investigative report by Occupational Knowledge International on paints in Cameroon in 2013 found that 67% of new paints contained high levels of lead. What was additionally shocking was that these paints produced by manufacturers based in the US and other countries where lead limits were in effect were not labelled nor were their ingredients included. This discovery was a result of an interest by OK International, based in the US, which conducts research on lead among other hazardous substances. Often such data is not easily available, however.

Often such data is not easily available however. In the worst case scenarios, the dangers of lead are only recognised after a disaster. Such as the combined deaths of at least 500 people most of them children due to lead poisoning in Thiaroye sur Mer, Senegal in 2008, and in Zamfara, Nigeria in 2010. Initial warning signs and symptoms of poisoning were not recognised as such and were thought to be common infectious diseases. The Senegalese government has since then with the help of Blacksmith Institute and the International Lead and Zinc Study Group put in measures to provide cleaner ULAB recycling facilities that will prevent future lead leakage; cleaned up the contaminated sites; and conducted education campaigns on lead’s harmful effects as well as provided training on alternative livelihoods.

It is hopeful that Ms Omido’s winning the Goldman Prize will raise the profile of lead as a hazard in LMI countries. After the medical response in Owino-Uhuru, soil clean-ups and education efforts to communicate ways to limit or prevent lead exposure will be necessary. But even more necessary is legislation on environmental limits for chemical pollutants such as lead to enable monitoring of factories like the one in Owino-Uhuru; and to provide affected people with a means of recourse. Cleaning up after lead leakage is an expensive operation and requires technical expertise. Prevention would be a lot cheaper and easier.

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