There is the kind of lead poisoning that creeps into water supplies, builds up in children’s blood streams, and, if sustained, will impair their brains. And then there is the kind, much rarer, that makes fully grown adults drop dead.
Phyllis Omido didn’t know about either kind when, starting in 2007, several children in Owino Uhuru, a village in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, started fainting and convulsing like epilepsy patients. Or when, in 2010, her toddler son suddenly fell ill, a few months after she took a job in the village.
Neither did the local doctors. They tried in vain to use malaria medication to treat the Owino Uhuru children who came in with unexplainable diarrhea and strange rashes. The children did not improve, because they did not have a mosquito-borne infectious disease; they were lead-poisoned.
In late 2010, a worker at the village’s lead-acid battery smelter dropped from his work station beside an open-fire furnace, already dead as he fell. By then, Omido knew what was happening. Her baby had just tested positive for lead poisoning. She suspected her neighbors’ children were sick for the same reason, and that the factory wasn’t just a nuisance, it was dangerous. The trouble was getting anyone in power to do anything about it.
Pop the hood of nearly any car and you’ll find a battery the size of a breadbox. You’re looking at a brick of lead, and it’s probably recycled (in 2017, an industry group found that 80% of most “new” batteries were made of recycled material). Lead-acid car batteries weigh around 40 pounds; around 24 lbs of that heft is lead. Nearly every cell-service tower has a wall of lead-acid batteries for backup power. In countries like Kenya, where the power supply can be intermittent, it’s common for individuals and businesses to have lead-acid batteries around to keep the power on during blackouts. As the small-scale solar industry grows in Kenya and elsewhere, so does battery demand; each new solar array needs lead-acid batteries for power storage.
The lead-acid battery industry boasts that its product is recyclable; lithium-ion batteries—lead-acid’s primary competitor—are currently not, because the cost to recycle them is currently three times the value of the recovered materials. In developed countries in the northern hemisphere, a car battery lasts around six years; in many Asian and African countries, possibly due to lower-quality lead and tropical conditions, they typically last just one or two years.
The high turnover rate makes recycling smelters a major part of the lead-battery supply chain. Battery recycling can be extremely lucrative: The global market price of lead hovers around $1 per pound ( $1.19/lb at the time of writing). If you can cheaply pull 24 lbs of lead from every used lead-acid car battery—and effective smelters can—you’re likely to turn a good profit. In some countries, like the US, laws require lead-acid battery smelters to put in place expensive pollution controls. But in Kenya, as in most countries in Africa and Asia, such laws don’t exist, making profit margins even more attainable.
When Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ Limited, the smelter at Owino Uhuru, was running, men working inside liberated lead from batteries by smashing their plastic casings with sledgehammers, sending lead dust flying. They melted the lead powder in open-fire furnaces. They wore no protective gear. Waste from the batteries piled up in a nearby room for up to two years at a time, according to the 2009 government inspection (pdf). The inspection report highlighted the serious health risks of the smelter.
The smoke from the smelter chimney billowed freely, soot settling over nearby houses in a fine mist. The smell was horrible. “It was really pungent,” Omido says, like rotten eggs. “Most people would tie a piece of cloth around their face just so that they don’t breathe in. And your eyes would sting—it would make your eyes really sting and water.”
Some locals used the containment wall of the smelter as the fourth wall of their mud houses. Their iron roofs began to corrode from the acid-laced air.
Lead-acid wastewater dribbled out of a hole in the smelter wall, and flowed through the village, eventually reaching the municipal water system, according to the 2009 Kenyan government report. The effluent from the hole in the smelter wall also ran directly into a trench that villagers used a to drink and bathe.
Meanwhile, the smelter was exporting the processed lead to India, where its owners were from—and where the lead-acid battery market is booming. It was worth $4.5 billion in 2016, and one forecast predicted it would nearly double to $7.9 billion by 2022 thanks to a growing demand in India for cars, new solar power projects, and expanding telecommunication infrastructure.
Though there is no official tally of the deaths, Omido says 100 children from Owino Uhuru have died, in addition to dozens of smelter workers and a few of their wives.
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Owino Uhuru is a community of about 3,800 on the outskirts of Mombasa, an industrial port city of around 1 million on Kenya’s east coast, facing the Indian Ocean. Houses in Owino Uhuru are mostly mud; some have thatched roofs, others are topped with sheet metal. Very few have electricity or running water.
Most people who live in Owino Uhuru work as day laborers in the ports, where goods from East Africa depart for India and the rest of Asia. They earn about 300 Kenyan shillings, or $3, a day, loading and unloading containers from ships. So when Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ Limited, a Kenyan subsidiary of an Indian-owned company, moved into Owino Uhuru in 2007 offering about 200 jobs at roughly double what the shipyard paid, it seemed a blessing.
But almost immediately, residents nearby began to complain of respiratory illnesses and livestock dying. In June 2008, Mombasa officials shut the plant down for worker endangerment and failure to treat the waste flowing out of the facility, but allowed it to reopen a month later. In March 2009, after residents lodged more complaints, Kenyan environmental officials visited the smelter and produced the report detailing the lead effluent that flowed out of a hole in the smelter wall, and the smoke that billowed unabated from the chimney, corroding the sheet metal roofing of people’s houses. The government officials reported that the factory had been built without any environmental assessment, and bluntly suggested that the entire Kenyan system of environmental review needed a revamp. It forced the plant to shut down again, but it reopened shortly after.
By the time the Kenyan officials came poking around, Omido was a newly minted smelter employee. She’d arrived early in 2009, taking what seemed at the time an ideal job as the smelter’s public relations officer. She commuted to Owino Uhuru from a different part of Mombasa, and was allowed to bring her 2-year-old son to work at the company’s onsite office. She was making more money than she ever had before. It appeared perfect.
Three months into the job, around the time the Kenyan inspectors paid a visit, Omido’s son fell seriously ill. He had a high fever, watery eyes, and diarrhea. Then severe anemia set in. Omido brought him to several doctors, but none had any idea what was wrong. They tested him for all the tropical diseases common in the region: Malaria, typhoid, rota. No tests hit, he got worse, and Omido could do nothing but pray.
Then a government employee from Export Processing Zones Authority, the Kenyan government agency that encourages foreign investment, visited. He and Omido knew each other from work; Omido had been in export industries her whole career. “He was the one who told me to get [my son] tested for lead poisoning,” Omido says. “I said, ‘why?’ And he said, ‘you know where you work?’”
Omido did her own research and discovered that chronic lead poisoning had the potential to forever alter children’s brains. While there is no safe level of lead for children, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers anything above 5 μg/dL to merit intervention, and research has found levels over 10 μg/dL in children younger than 6 years old “can result in lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior.”
No lab in Kenya could test for lead, so Omido sent a vial of her son’s blood to South Africa by plane. It came back with a reading of 45 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl). The highest blood-lead reading in Flint, Michigan at the height of the now-infamous crisis there was 38 ug/dl.
Omido was shocked. So were the doctors, who had never seen lead poisoning in their patients before.
There is debate within the research community about whether children with lead poisoning can avoid permanent neurological impacts through chelation therapy. Some research has shown promising results with early treatment, and in wealthier countries, it’s almost a certainty that a child with high blood-lead levels would be chelated. But Omido and her son’s doctors didn’t have access to the expensive chelation pills.
“I remember calling the owner of the smelter,” Omido says. “I was really angry and very emotional. And I just told him, ‘You poisoned my child. You should have told me that this thing was dangerous. You’ve poisoned my child and there’s no treatment and the Kenyan doctors don’t know what to do.’”
After researching lead poisoning online, Omido asked the doctors to put her son on a zinc and calcium drip, two nutrients that reduce lead absorption. His blood-lead level slowly went down: his last reading, in 2010, was 9 μg/dL. But within those few months, her son’s medical bills climbed past $2,000. The company paid the bills, Omido says, in exchange for her silence. But if her son had lead poisoning, she thought, other children in the community probably did too. She couldn’t fathom keeping quiet while her neighbors’ children were falling ill.
She quit her job—keeping afloat by taking odd jobs cleaning houses—and resolved to figure out how badly the village had been affected.
She coaxed three other women in Owino Uhuru to have their children’s blood tested for lead; all three were positive. No one had money for chelation therapy. Shortly after, one of the smelter workers fell down nearby the furnace, already dead as he dropped.
“Lead will lead to a derailment of various systems until you die,” in both children and adults, says Jerome Nriagu, a researcher at the University of Michigan school of public health who has spent much of his career documenting lead-poisoning cases in places like Mongolia and Zamfara state, Nigeria, where well over 100 children and adults were fatally lead poisoned while panning for gold in 2010. Lead attacks organs, especially the heart and kidneys. “It destroys the cardiovascular system, so you can have a heart attack. It can cause hypertension, kidney damage, stroke,” Nriagu says. Short of death, at high enough levels, the lead will “simply damage your system,” Nriagu says. “Paralysis, kidney failure, memory loss, depression—these can all set in.”
A pattern was emerging in Owino Uhuru: Livestock that grazed on grass growing in the effluent of the smelter would die. Children in the village developed strange scaly patches on their skin. Women miscarried or gave birth prematurely, and infants were born with deformities. People complained of fainting spells, weakness, convulsions, bone pain, numb feet—all signs of lead poisoning. Children were dying; workers were dying; some of their wives died too, likely exposed when they washed their husbands’ lead-covered work clothes.
Omido wrote letters to the Kenyan environmental agency, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), demanding the smelter be shut down. She founded the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), which tested the soil and water around the plant. They found that dust from village roofs had lead levels of 14,000 parts per million; the soil in the village where children played had up to 11,000 ppm. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency sets a limit of 400 ppm of lead in soil where children play, and 1,200 ppm in all other soil. In Owino Uhuru, when it rained, villagers would go down to the local streams and collect water running off the lead-soaked ground for drinking and cooking. The air itself was choked with emissions from the smelter.
Omido began organizing protests. By 2012, villagers were well aware of the connection between the smelter and their deteriorating health; Omido was arrested along with 16 others from Owino Uhuru while marching down a street in Mombasa that year, calling for the smelter to be closed. In a photo of her arrest, she’s carrying a sign that says “Sentenced to Death.” She was charged with “inciting violence” and spent a night in jail.
The protests began to pick up local press coverage, and under mounting public pressure, Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ finally shut down in 2014.
Omido won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism in 2015. But the soil in Owino Uhuru remains as toxic as it ever was while the plant was in operation, and Omido suspects the water is too; people are still falling ill and dying from lead poisoning, and likely will continue to die from heavy metal toxicity until the day Owino Uhuru is cleaned up, if it ever comes. Linette Nabwire, a 26-year-old woman from Owino Uhuru, passed away in 2016. A post-mortem found she had a blood-lead level of 238 ug/dl.
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Attorney Charles Onyango first met Omido in 2012, after she was arrested and the East African Law Society selected Onyango to represent her and other protesters on trial. Onyango argued that Kenya was in obvious violation of the Basel Convention, an international agreement which Kenya signed in 1989, and which mandates that lead-acid battery smelters take measures to prevent polluting residential areas. Omido and her fellow protesters were acquitted.
In 2016, Omido decided to sue the Kenyan government for negligence, and called Onyango. “Let’s finish this thing,” she said over the phone.
The lawsuit claims the Kenyan government knew years ago that the battery smelter was flagrantly exposing people to the heavy metal, and did nothing to make it stop. The Kenyan constitution calls health a right; the lawsuit says Kenya violated the constitution, and seeks lead-poisoning treatment for all the victims and a government project to get Owino Uhuru cleaned up.
Export Processing Zones Authority is also named in the suit. To get an EPZA permit to process goods for export from Kenya, an applicant must prove they have enough capital to start the business, their intention to export 80% of what they make, and that they have foreign buyers for their products. There is nothing about environmental or human safety standards in the application paperwork.
The agency declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. All other Kenyan governmental agencies named in the suit did not respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit also implicates Hezron Awiti Bolo, a wealthy Mombasa businessman and former local politician who lost his campaign for governor of Mombasa this summer. Awiti Bolo owned the land leased by the lead smelter. He has claimed he was in no position as a landlord to know what was happening at the smelter, and has publicly questioned whether children who died of lead poisoning in the village were actually residents of Owino Uhuru.
Onyango says Awiti Bolo was at least partly complicit in Kenya Metal Refinery EPZ’s actions. The smelter was required to prove it had consulted with Owino Uhuru residents as part of its environmental impact assessment before it was built. However, according to Onyango, the refinery used employees of Awiti Bolo’s company, Penguin Paper & Book Co. (not connected to the global publishing imprint) as stand-ins for Owino Uhuru villagers. A documents obtained by KTN News list Awiti Bolo as executive chairman of the smelter itself.
When The Guardian reached out to him earlier this year about the allegation, Awiti Bolo said, “I cannot comment. This is a matter that is in the courts.” (Quartz’s attempts to contact Awiti Bolo either bounced back or went unanswered.)
Onyango tried to serve papers to the Indian businessmen who officially directed the smelter—identified as Gautam Gulshankumar Gambir and Saniya Gulshankumar Gambir in a 2015 report (pdf, p. 79) prepared for the Kenyan Senate—but couldn’t find them. Contact information for Kumar Vora, identified in an hour-long TV special made by Kenyan station KTN News as part of a father-son duo who allegedly owned the plant, is still available on the EPZ website, but the listed email addresses bounce back.
They lawsuit is now grinding into its second year without a response from the government.
On the other side of the suit is a coalition of some of the least powerful people in Mombasa. Onyango says many of the Owino Uhuru locals he expects to testify on behalf of their neighbors are extremely poor, and have been threatened or bribed to retract their testimonies from the case and refuse to serve as witnesses.
Omido says she has received death threats, and two of her colleagues from the CJGEA had their houses burned down. The 12-year-old son of another colleague was abducted for three days before being released on the side of a road. The harassment was enough to provoke John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, to release a statement in February last year calling for the government of Kenya to protect Omido and her colleagues; “Phyllis Omido and the other members of the CJGEA are facing a life-or-death situation,” Knox said at the time.
The plaintiff’s expert witness was Samuel Okuche, a public health doctor who worked for the government and agreed to testify against his employer on behalf of the village. He died in his sleep a month before he could give his testimony. Omido described him as a healthy man in the middle of his life. “Between the time we proposed his name as a witness, and the time [we were meant to go] to court on the 15th [of December, 2017], he died,” Onyango says. The case had to be pushed back. “Phyllis [Omido] is suspecting foul play, but I can’t comment on that now.”
Omido is more blunt: She says before Okuche died, he gave her an unreleased Ministry of Health report on the village, which showed the government was concerned about exposure to lead there. “I think they knew he was giving me a lot of information. And he ended up dead,” she says. “They say we are delusional, but we know we are not. How can a healthy man just fall down? Just the previous day I spoke to him. He was at a conference on HIV. The next day I tried calling him and no one was picking [up].”
Omido says she is surveilled on phone calls, sometimes so crudely enough it’s comical; on one recent call, she says, she heard an automated voice pop into her conversation like Siri on an iPhone. “The call you have been surveilling has been dropped,” the voice said.
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The World Health Organization estimates lead poisoning kills roughly 143,000 people per year from long-term exposure, while other research has found it responsible for many times more than that; one analysis put it at 674,000 deaths per year. “Batteries are the biggest part of the pie,” according to Perry Gottesfeld, the president of Occupational Knowledge International, a research group that produces peer-reviewed reports on occupational exposure to hazardous materials and advocates for worker health.
Gottesfeld has researched lead poisoning for 30 years. About 15 years ago, he started focusing on the lead-battery industry, since that’s the one source of lead that keeps growing over time while others—like leaded gasoline, for example—shrink. The lead-battery industry has more than doubled in size since he began his work and is projected to keep climbing: Lead-acid batteries made up a $53.32 billion global market in 2016, and are currently responsible for 85% of global lead consumption; by 2022, the market is predicted to reach $81.25 billion, according to global market research firm Stratistics MRC.
Lead batteries are, theoretically, endlessly recyclable. But it’s hard to recycle a lead-acid battery at a reasonable cost without exposing workers or nearby communities to toxic substances. In 2017, California began what is expected to be a long process of removing lead pollution in residential areas near Los Angeles, spewed over 33 years by the recently-shuttered battery-recycling plant (owned and operated since 2000 by Exide Technologies) two miles away. Now, in the US, laws require battery-recycling workers to wear protective gear, and work in tightly sealed rooms, much like technicians in an infectious-disease lab. Workers enter a sealed chamber and smelting is done in sealed furnaces, where smoke is directed through chimneys equipped with scrubbers, technology that siphons most polluting particles out of the smoke before it exits the facility.
Of course, having all of these measures in place makes recycling a lead-acid battery far more expensive. A plant conforming to all those regulations needs to be processing a large number of batteries to be economically viable. In most of the world, as in Owino Uhuru, recyclers are small-scale operations that can’t afford (or just aren’t incentivized) to operate safely.
In 2014, a former employee of the Owino Uhuru smelter identified only as “Eric” told Human Rights Watch that smelter workers were given a single pair of cotton gloves each month while they smashed batteries and burned lead in a furnace. “The gloves would be completely destroyed after a few days so we would work with our bare hands,” he said. When managers came on site, they would be fully dressed in protective gear. “They used to tell us that because we had been working there for so long, whether we quit or kept working, we would still die.”
They were mostly right.
After three years of working together at the smelter, two brothers, Karissa and George Kiti, both fell ill. “If we both quit, what will we eat?” George remembers reasoning. “If we die working, then we die. There will be no money otherwise.” George was sicker, and so Karissa encouraged him to quit while Karissa kept working. Karissa died a few months later.
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In a peer-reviewed report published in January in the journal Environmental Research, Gottesfeld and his colleagues documented former lead-acid battery recyclers in seven African countries including Kenya. A clear pattern emerged of smelters exploiting the lack of regulation around lead-acid battery recycling to turn a cheap profit, poisoning villages along the way. Omido’s organization has identified several other places within Kenya where lead-acid battery smelters are shutting down and their foreign owners disappearing, leaving behind high levels of lead in soil where locals live and grow food. These lead levels exceed even those in Owino Uhuru.
“We know perfectly well what lead does to both adults and children in a range of exposures,” says Gottesfeld. “We could solve this problem tomorrow without any new technology or new treatments. It’s completely preventable.”
But as Omido fights her case, Kenya is undergoing a period of political turmoil, where dissenters are muzzled, journalists are arrested, and news stations are taken off air. Political opposition leaders were recently arrested and the country appeared “on the brink,” as the New York Times put it, of spiraling into armed conflict, until a meeting between the top political rivals in March eased some anxiety.
It’s a political environment that may be inhospitable to a revolution in the governance of environmental health, and it’s a particularly difficult time to be very publicly suing the government. Omido and the plaintiffs were supposed to have their first hearing in front of a judge on Jan. 15, 2018, after months of delay. But the government has yet to respond to their complaint, and didn’t show up in court, so the trial was delayed again.
Their next court date is March 19.
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At a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in December 2017, Omido spoke to a small, international audience beneath a tent on the back lawn of the UN compound. She sat beside Irene Akinyi, a 25-year-old woman who has lived in Owino Uhuru all her life. Her husband and her father both worked at the smelter. She had washed her husband’s clothes each day when he came home from work. Akinyi was wrapped in a red winter coat, despite the tropical, 85°F (30°C), heat.
When Akinyi was tested in 2015, she had 420 ug/dl of lead in her blood. It’s rare that anyone survives having levels that high even for a short time, but Akinyi is still here, though in chronic pain.
Akinyi visibly shivered in her seat beside Omido; lead poisoning patients are known to shake and have chills. Lead poisoning is a neurological affliction, and speaking has become hard for Akinyi. She can’t grip anything, and is too weak to work. The pain in her knees sends her to a hospital once a week. “I have constant headaches. I am constantly shivering,” Akinyi said. In the US, anyone with blood-lead levels above 80 ug/dl would be considered a critical emergency case and would get chelation therapy immediately. But Akinyi can’t afford the treatment, like almost everyone else with lead poisoning in Owino Uhuru. She is one of the plaintiffs on Omido’s lawsuit.
Akinyi has two daughters. The youngest is 4 years old and healthy, born after the smelter shut down. The oldest, now 7, was born prematurely, while the lead-battery smelter was operating in full swing. At birth, her daughter’s blood-lead level was 16.9 μg/dL. “I might have resigned myself to the fate I may die,” Akinyi said, “but I worry about my children.”
Update: This piece has been updated to include other estimates of global deaths from lead poisoning, and to reflect the correct scope of an Occupational Knowledge International study