Coughing Up Copper

Article excerpt

If evidence of industrial pollution in Zambia is what you are looking for, head straight for the Copperbelt, preferably on a pay-day. Whether it is Chingola, Mufulira, Kitwe or any other town in this border province, the constant coughing that characterises the snaking pay-lines points to the vast amounts of toxic material that miners inhale as they dig for copper ore.

After collecting their pay, some will queue up again. This time, the miners are waiting to be examined for chest ailments at the Government-run Occupational Health and Research Bureau. Local hospitals are flooded with men suffering from chest diseases. Many complain that they have seen a doctor and taken medicine but the coughing continues nevertheless; others say they are being treated for tuberculosis. "It is these silica dust particles which cause TB," says Dr Danny Mwila, a physician for the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), which owns all the mines in the province.

Silica stone is found in granite rocks in the copper mines. Between January and June 1996, a least 21,743 miners working for ZCCM were screened at the bureau. Many were found to be suffering from silicosis or pneumoconiosis, which is an incurable disease. A large number were found to have impaired hearing as a resulting of the noise from machinery in the underground shafts.

But it is not only the Copperbelt which is suffering from air pollution in Zambia. Industrial pollution is a national problem, occurring wherever industries have set up. Alongside the mines, other related industries like cement, fertiliser and food processing plants are also affected. ZCCM, which accounts for 90% of Zambia's foreign exchange earnings, is thought to be the major cause of air pollution in Zambia.

Recent studies conducted by the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) list the major pollutants as sulphur dioxide, oxides from nitrogen chemicals, emissions containing heavy metal particles, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and fossil fuel such as coal.

Take, for instance, a town called Mufulira. Here, in the Kankoyo locality, sulphur dioxide emissions - in the air and in rivers - has devastated the crops. Vegetables no longer grow in Kankoyo and trees and other plants are withering. Even paint has begun to peel from walls because of the acid rain from the town's copper smelter. …