Kenya has had quite the year. From a recent plane crash to a raid by al-Shaabab earlier in June, the citizens are looking for some good news. Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch cannot offer such consolation, but their news does show Kenyans that someone is on their side.
A low-income area outside of Mombasa is facing a serious health threat: lead poisoning originating from the toxic waste of a nearby battery recycling plant. The Human Rights Watch has released a film entitled “Kenya: Factory Poisons Community,” which details the resulting health and environmental damage and calls for change.
The plant in question opened in the Owino Uhuru district in 2007. The plant has been in operation almost continuously for seven years. There are no precautions to protect the surrounding local community from contamination, and as a result, the waste that leaks out of the plant has infected the water sources. In addition, workers inside the lead smelter receive no protection and are often left to handle the toxic batteries with bare hands. The result? Massive exposure in the workers and community at large to seriously dangerous toxic lead.
Toxic poisoning is no light matter. It affects some 125 million people worldwide each year, usually in the form of waste from various industries. According to the WHO, high levels of lead exposure can cause damage in vital organs including the brain, liver and kidneys, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities for the next generation.
So far, three workers in the plant in Owino Uhura have died due to exposure to unhealthy amounts of lead, and the community of 3,000 is also showing signs of ill health. Blood tests performed on children back in 2009 showed unsafe and unusually high levels of lead in the blood, and children often suffer from fainting spells, seizures and intense chronic pain.
Little has been done to stop this tragedy. The plant was briefly shut down in 2009, but allowed to reopen shortly after, despite the health and environmental report that showed significant risk to the local community. However, since the smelter project was intended to stimulate foreign investment, officials are reluctant to end it completely.
That being said, some progress has been made, and the smelter was successfully moved from Owino Uhura earlier this year. However, this does little to alleviate the damage it has already caused and will only serve to infect another community with the same levels of lead poisoning. No citizens of the Owino Uhura district have received medical treatment or further testing. Compensation has not been given to the workers or patients either.
Phyllis Omido is a local within the community and a former employee of the smelter. When her son fell ill in 2009, she began a campaign to rally her fellow citizens and call for government action. Phyllis has organized letter drives and peaceful rallies. Although she has been arrested for her efforts, she does not plan to stop until the government helps her community. “We want them to clean up and to help remove the lead from the blood of our children,” says Phyllis.
The Human Rights Watch blames government inaction for the tragedy, but it is not the laws that are the problem. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act was ratified in 1999 and states that it is illegal for industry to release toxic substances into the air or water. Kenyan law also requires an environmental impact assessment before plants like the Owino Uhura smelter can open, but the plant in question did not go through the process. In short, the laws are in place, but are rarely followed.
Kenya is also a member of several esteemed communities that advocate for human rights and the environment. These range from the African Commission on the Human and People’s Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Children and the International Labor Organization. Kenya’s association with such groups means that it is obligated to take care of its people.
However, even though these laws are on the books and Kenya attends conferences on human rights, this obligation is often ignored. This illuminates not a flaw in the country’s laws, but in its government. The Human Rights Watch holds the Kenyan government accountable for the health tragedy in Owino Uhura and calls on it to remedy its toxic lead problem. Jane Cohen of the Human Rights Watch says, “This is an urgent and on-going crisis that needs immediate government action.”
So far, the Kenyan government has not released a statement, but is in attendance at the 2014 Environmental Assembly meeting, which has toxic poisoning on the agenda.
How Kenya will react to this recent call for action remains to be seen, but the seriousness of the situation is clear. Kenyan citizens are being put at risk by their government’s failure to abide by its own laws and protect its people. It is time for the Kenyan government to be held accountable for the health issues of its people caused by its industry.
— Caitlin Thompson