Lead Poisoning Class Action Against Mining Giant Anglo-American South Africa Reaches Critical Certification Hearing

  • Landmark certification  hearing will determine whether around 140,000 lead poisoned women and children in Zambia (the Children of Kabwe) can bring class action proceedings against Anglo-American South Africa Ltd (Anglo).
  • Affected children are at risk of significant brain damage and, for some children, premature death as a result of dangerous blood lead levels after alleged mismanagement of mining operations that took place under Anglo’s watch.
  • Despite evidence that Anglo knew of the risk to Kabwe residents, and that the claimants have no other mean of access to justice, the company is attempting to block the class action. 

Today, victims of lead poisoning allegedly caused by Anglo’s negligence with regard to the former Anglo-American group’s Kabwe mine in Zambia will put their arguments before the High Court of South Africa to push for certification of their landmark class action.

The town of Kabwe and the surrounding area is one of the most polluted places in the world. It was left with extreme levels of lead pollution after nearly fifty years of metal mining and smelting operations that were subject to Anglo’s management and/or technical advice and supervision  between 1925 – 1974.  It is this actual involvement, rather than the precise level of Anglo’s investment or shareholding in the mine, that is relevant to legal liability.   During this period, Anglo made substantial profits.

The case, which is being brought by 12 representative plaintiffs on behalf of the class, claims that  around 140,000 Zambian women and children have suffered lead poisoning which caused and continues to cause brain damage and puts some children at risk of death. Two of the representatives (both aged under 2 at the time of filing the application) had blood lead levels in excess of 100 ug/dl and eight had Blood Lead Levels (“BLLs”) in excess of 45ug/dl.

Lead accumulated during childhood is stored in the bones and released during pregnancy, putting the mother at significant risk of adverse health effects such as hypertension and miscarriage. Lead also crosses the placenta, poisoning the foetus.

International standard-setting bodies, including the WHO and the US CDC conclude that there is no safe level of lead. BLLs as low as 3.5µg/dl lead can cause cognitive impairment and behavioural problems.  High levels can cause irreparable brain damage, kidney damage and even death. Average BLLs in children in the communities situated closest to the mine have been found to be more than 10 times higher than this limit. At the certification hearing Anglo will be applying to exclude evidence from two eminent US medical professors who have filed evidence on the low level lead exposure.

Studies conducted in the Kabwe area over the past 20 years have found that 80% of young children sampled had BLLs over 5 µg/dL, and that in the villages close to the mine, average BLLs of young children exceed 45 ug/dl, the level at which significant medical treatment is required 

The court hearing is scheduled to last for eight days and will consider whether the case should proceed as a class action. Significant evidence of the scale and magnitude of the lead hazard in Kabwe, Anglo’s knowledge of this hazard, and the company’s legal liability has been submitted to the court in support of these arguments.

Kabwe has been described as the world’s most toxic town by pollution experts due to its severe environmental lead hazard. Anglo claims that this is due to gross negligence on the part of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines ( ZCCM), the Zambian state-owned company that took over the mine in 1974.  But this is contradicted by studies by Kabwe mine doctors in the late 1960s and early 1970s, showing that children around the mine were already suffering severe lead poisoning and that the soil in local areas was heavily polluted with lead from the mine. In a letter published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1972, a Kabwe mine doctor referred to the deaths of five local children from lead poisoning. Despite this, Anglo failed to ensure remediation of the area before the mine was handed over to ZCCM. This was despite recommendations to do so by an eminent international medical expert.

Anglo ’s own internal reports indicate that they aware of, or at best turned a blind eye to, the dangers of lead pollution, ignoring any concern for the well-being of Kabwe residents.

Expert legal evidence has been filed that the claimants would not be able to obtain access to justice in Zambia, where there are no class actions and lawyers are not permitted to act on a contingency fee basis. Anglo has not contested this evidence. Despite this, Anglo argue that the class action should not be allowed to proceed. This has prompted interventions in the case by several United Nations agencies and Amnesty International. They point out that this attempt to deny the claimants access to justice is at odds with human rights commitments that Anglo American has made publicly, and its own policies, to protect human rights including, specifically, the right of access to justice. 

Anglo American’s Group Human Rights Policy states “Where we have caused or contributed to adverse human rights impacts we will contribute to their remediation as appropriate.”

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