Lead Poisoning

April 2016


Mombasa, Kenya

The smelter is gone, but slum dwellers still paying price of lead poisoning

Residents of Mombasa’s Owino Uhuru area are suffering fatal health conditions due to pollution. He stares long and hard into space. On an old wooden table in front of him, lie X-ray files, copies of medical reports and a few drugs. It is obvious that life has taken a toll on the old man who is now in poor health and uses crutches to move around.

The photos hanging on the walls of the room speak of a robust youth full of life and smiles — a stark contrast to the dreary man seated before us.

Daudi Mahala, 69, is among residents of the Owino Uhuru slum in Mombasa on Kenya’s Coast, who have been affected by lead poisoning.

On the day we visit him, he has just bought painkillers worth Ksh800 ($9) to relieve him of pain in his joints. The former Kenya Ports Authority employee is a bitter man, given that this was his retirement home; a place he hoped would offer him the peace and sense of relaxation he needed in his senior years. Now, it is a death trap.

“When I built this house here in 1999, it was to be my retirement home. Things, however, changed in 2007 when I started falling sick. I began experiencing pains in my joints, losing my memory and found myself constantly coughing,” Mr Mahala says as he struggles to find a comfortable position on the sofa.

The old man says one of his doctors performed a blood test on him and discovered that he was suffering from lead poisoning. A final test showed that he had 24 microgrammes per decilitre of blood. He understood neither how the lead had found its way into his body nor the ramifications.

“My doctor asked if I stayed close to a factory and that is when it hit me that the battery smelting factory behind my house was hurting me. I felt betrayed because it set up shop long after I had started living here,” he says.

Things started falling into place. He had replaced the iron sheet roofing on his house twice since the factory began operations in 2006 due to severe rusting.

At one point, residents of Owino Uhuru complained of the smoke coming from the factory, and the chimney that directed it away from their homes was extended.

The smelter is gone, but slum dwellers still paying price of lead poisoning