Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Environmental and health issues in the Zambian copper belt

22 November 2013

Self-regulated Mopani mines have come under scrutiny by non-governmental organizations and the World Health Organization for releasing harmful particles into the atmosphere through copper extraction processes called heap and situ leaching.

The particles react with each other and create acidic mists, which destroy crops, harmed peoples’ skin, eyes and lungs, and deteriorate the quality of the land as well as nearby buildings and homes.

Chama Mwansa, the spokeswoman for Zambia's environmental management agency, spoke to Reuters after one mine site closed in early 2012 for excessive pollution. "Statistics show an increase in the number of cases of pulmonary, throat, nose and ear ailments," she said.

Poor environmental regulation

Despite the temporary government closure of some mine sites, poor regulation of arsenic, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid levels continues in Zambia. It is largely a product of the privatization of Zambia’s mining operations.

The Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa said that prior to 1994 all mining affairs were handled by Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited, but the private mining companies in power now are largely self-regulating.

Emission standards in Zambia are set by the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ). Patson Zulu, the director of the ECZ, told the Mopani Report that private mining companies’ environmental management plans even take precedence over national emission legislation. The ECZ doesn’t have the equipment or resources to carry out inspections, so private mining companies conduct their own emission readings. When their emissions exceed the national limits, the mining companies simply pay more to renew their licenses.


The World Health Organization also found that Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia emit arsenic into the air and water at levels 16 times higher than legal limits. Lenntech, a water treatment solution research company in the Netherlands, said that beyond the environmental detriment, contaminated crops and fish can also bring arsenic into local food supplies. Their report explained that plants easily absorb arsenic in the air and water, and contaminated fish experience genetic mutations. Arsenic poisoning causes infertility and miscarriages in women, skin problems, decreased immunity, and heart and brain damage. Exposure to inorganic arsenic has also been linked with cancer.

Sulfur Dioxide

Mopani’s mining operations in Zambia emit sulfur dioxide at levels 70 times higher than what the World Health Organization says are acceptable.

The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety has found that sulfur dioxide in the air can penetrate deeply into sensitive areas of the lungs and cause or worsen respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and can aggravate existing heart diseases — causing premature death.

Even short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can be detrimental to respiratory health, causing bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a study showing that the likelihood of succumbing to sulfur dioxide illnesses increases in at-risk populations: children, the elderly, pregnant women and asthmatics.

Sulfuric Acid

In addition, sulfuric acid has created a significant problem for Zambia’s water supply with Mopani’s introduction of situ-leaching — a process during which sulfur is injected into the copper ore deposits to make it easier to extract. Introducing sulfur straight into the ground contaminates groundwater supplies. In 2008, more than 700 people were treated for exposure to contaminated water.

The danger of sulfur contamination isn’t exclusively from situ-leaching. Trucks moving sulfuric acid in and out of the copper belt travel on bad roads. In 2009, a truck transporting sulfuric acid turned over by the Tukula Mutima River, which flows into the Kafue river — the main water source in the copper belt. Fish and plant life in the area died on contact with the spill.

Patson Zulu of the Environmental Council of Zambia told Counter Balance, a Zambia copper belt watchdog interest group, that until heavier legislation is imposed on the private mining companies, the crops and livestock of local communities will continue to be exposed to toxic mining waste and emissions.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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