Picture of demonstration against smelter in Owino Uhuru. All images sent to FRANCE 24 by Phyllis Omido.

Residents of a poor district in Mombasa accuse the government of ignoring their pleas for help after toxic waste from a nearby smelter caused three deaths and untold suffering. Although the factory was finally forced to move after seven years, the community is still suffering the consequences.

The smelter – which recycles batteries – began operating in 2007 in Mombasa’s impoverished Owino Uhuru district. As a result of toxic lead poisoning from the plant, Human Rights Watch says three people have died and thousands more have been contaminated. The rights organization also accuses the government of failing to enforce its own regulations: contrary to Kenyan law, the plant began operating even before it had carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment. The government finally forced the smelter to move elsewhere earlier this year after pressure from rights groups and heavy media coverage.

The battery recycling plant thought to have caused lead poisoning can be seen in the background of this picture from Owino Uhuru.

According to the World Health Organization, children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. As well as causing damage to the stomach, kidneys, liver and nerves, long-term exposure can seriously damage a person’s brain development, reducing intelligence, and in some cases even leads to death.

FRANCE 24 contacted Kenya’s Ministry of Health several times to seek a response to allegations that it had failed to regulate the smelter. At the time of publication, we had yet to receive a response.

“The government has offered no help in cleaning up the area or providing compensation”

Phyllis Omido worked in the smelter before her son fell ill with lead poisoning. In 2009, she decided to quit her job to campaign against the factory.

I was hired to work as a human resource officer and part of my work was that I was supposed to help carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the factory. I worked with an independent expert accredited by the National Environment Management Authority [Editor’s note: NEMA is the main government agency tasked with overseeing environmental regulations] to write an Environment Impact Assessment The expert told me that the factory would have a negative impact on the community, and we wrote our report to this effect. I approached management to tell them what the expert had told me: that the location was wrong and could kill people. But they weren’t receptive. In 2009 - as I tried to persuade management to reconsider the factory’s location - my son fell sick. He was in and out of hospital with diarrhea, vomiting, and high fever. For a while, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Then I was told that it could be lead poisoning. Although I didn’t live next to the smelter, my son’s babysitter used to bring him to work so I could breast feed him. He was released from hospital after a month.
“Day and night we were subjected to heavy, thick smoke containing lead particles”

That’s when I started my advocacy work. In the beginning, what really affected the community was the smoke: day and night it was subjected to heavy, thick smoke containing lead particles. That caused the iron roofing sheets to rust; in a week the whole roof would be rusted. But the toxic waste also destroyed the environment. Trees dried up. The chickens that the community relied on for food drank waste water and died.

Kelvin, an orphan from Owino Uhuru, was playing football when he stepped in waste water from the smelter. His toe was completely burnt. He now suffers from seizures and fainting.

In 2009, I wrote to the government to tell them about the report I was given by the NEMA accredited expert. But we didn’t get a response. The smelter continued to operate. Then, the government temporarily shut down the smelter and the Public Complaints Committee investigated our complaint. But a few weeks later it reopened [Editor’s note: Human Rights Watch says that despite government pressure, very few changes were made to the factory]. By the end of 2009, the situation was becoming worse because community members were falling sick, the children especially.

“In one case, a 24-year-old girl was pregnant but at seven months her fetus died… She can no longer conceive.”

We tested the children in the community for lead poisoning. All the tests came back positive. One of the workers employed in the smelter died in 2010. He had worked there for only a year. That sparked uproar in the community and amongst the workers. Many of the workers quit. Many women also began suffering miscarriages, which the doctors told us was because of lead poisoning [Editor’s note: No other local source of lead has been identified other than the smelter]. In one case, a 24-year-old girl was pregnant but at seven months her fetus died. Her uterus had been permanently damaged: she can no longer conceive. So no one wants to marry her. Some children still suffer seizures.
Residents hold a demonstration in November 2013 against the smelter in Owino Uhuru.Although the smelter has now moved, it has left the community with disastrous health consequences.

In 2012, I planned to picket with the residents. But on the morning of the demonstration we were arrested by the police. We were held in court and charged with attempting to hold an illegal gathering. I was charged with inciting violence as well. I was never convicted; I was released in November 2012. Eventually, the pressure from the media and human rights organizations may have been what contributed to the government’s decision to relocate the smelter in 2014.
Residents hold a demonstration in November 2013 against the smelter in Owino Uhuru. It was the fourth of its kind.

We are trying to get the government to clean up and compensate everyone in the community. If they don’t, I’m working with advocates to take the government to court. The smelter channeled all their waste into the water that the community was using for drinking water every day. It’s contaminated with lead. The playground where the children play is where the smoke was being emitted, so the soil is contaminated. The men who worked in the smelter have impotency problems. Yet the government has offered no help in cleaning up the area or providing compensation. We want them to clean-up and to help remove the lead from the blood of our children.

This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).