Almost a century of lead mining and smelting has poisoned generations of children in the Copperbelt town of Kabwe in Zambia
Id like to be a doctor, says seven-year-old Martin, sitting quietly in his modest home in Kabwe, Zambia. But the truth is that Martin struggles with his schoolwork, and his dream seems unlikely to become a reality.
Kabwe is the worlds most toxic town, according to pollution experts, where mass lead poisoning has almost certainly damaged the brains and other organs of generations of children and where children continue to be poisoned every day.
Almost a century of lead mining and smelting has left a truly toxic legacy in the once-thriving town of 220,000 people in central Africas Copperbelt, 100km north of the capital Lusaka. But the real impact on Kabwes people is yet to be fully revealed and, while the first steps towards a clean-up have begun, new dangers are emerging as desperately poor people scavenge in the vast slag heap known as Black Mountain.
Having been to probably 20 toxic hotspots throughout the world, and seeing mercury, chromium and many contaminated lead sites, [I can say] the scale in Kabwe is unprecedented, says Prof Jack Caravanos, an environmental health expert at New York University, on his fourth visit to the town. There are thousands of people affected here, not hundreds as in other places.
The fumes from the giant state-owned smelter, which closed in 1994, has left the dusty soil in the surrounding area with extreme levels of lead. The metal, still used around the world in car batteries, is a potent neurotoxin and is particularly damaging to children. But it is youngsters who swallow the most, especially as infants when they start to play outside and frequently put their hands in their mouths.