Investors Should Press Anglo American to Tackle Toxic Lead Legacy in Zambia

Rights groups write to 10 leading ESG investment firms urging them to intervene

 Anglo American’s failure to act on the toxic legacy at Kabwe stands in sharp contrast to the company’s public human rights commitments,” – say African and British human rights groups.

Investors who hold shares in global mining giant, Anglo American, should urge the company to resolve its devastating toxic legacy in Kabwe, Zambia, a group of African and British human rights organisations said today.

The group released a letter sent to 10 of Anglo American’s leading investors including BlackRock, Fidelity, JP Morgan, Standard Life Aberdeen and Old Mutual. Anglo American is due to release its annual results this Thursday, 25 February.

Kabwe, a mining town in northern Zambia, is home to what was once one of the world’s most productive lead mines. For over 50 years, between 1925 and 1974, the mine was part of the Anglo American group of companies.

The mine has poisoned Kabwe’s residents who have some of the highest lead levels in the world, especially among young children. Low levels of exposure can result in reduced IQ, behavioural problems, hearing and developmental impairment, while high levels can be fatal. Lead poisoning also adversely affects pregnancy and can impair the development of the foetus thereby impacting future generations

Anglo American South Africa provided design, management and technical expertise to the Kabwe mine, including guidance on health issues. Experts say that most of the lead currently in the local environment was likely deposited during the time of Anglo American’s management.

Alarmingly high blood lead levels in children

Health studies in Kabwe have recorded the alarmingly high blood lead levels in children aged 5 years and younger. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a blood lead level of 5 µg/dl (micrograms per decilitre) or lower, yet in Kabwe thousands of children have levels above 45µg/dl), with some above 100µg/dl.

Documents show that Anglo American was aware of the lead poisoning. A doctor on the Kabwe mine, Dr A.R.L Clark, conducted a study between 1971-74 prompted by the deaths of eight Kabwe children from suspected lead poisoning. He found the blood lead levels of children to be highly elevated across communities near to the mine.

In October 2020, a group of Zambian women and children filed a class action lawsuit against Anglo American’s subsidiary in South Africa for alleged mass lead poisoning.

Anglo American’s response

Anglo America says it has high economic, social and governance (ESG) standards across its operations. In an address at the 2021 Mining Indaba in South Africa in early February, Mark Cutifani, the CEO of Anglo American, said “humanity” was a key word for the company and that “people look to Anglo for leadership and assurances that a company can put operations aside and focus on what is good for the community.”

Anglo American’s failure to act on the toxic legacy at Kabwe stands in sharp contrast to such statements, the rights groups said.

In response to the class action suit, Anglo American said it is “not responsible for the current situation” and “was not the majority owner of the mine”.

The organisations said that this portrayal does not reflect the true role of Anglo in Kabwe’s public health disaster. In their letter, the groups reminded investors that under similar circumstances, in two particular landmark cases, the UK Supreme Court found that companies can be held liable for such harms, most recently in a case against Royal Dutch Shell in 2021.

“There is an urgent need to clean up the toxic lead legacy in Kabwe, and to provide justice and remedy,” the human rights groups said. “Alleviating the ongoing suffering of Kabwe’s children, and its future generations, requires Anglo American’s leadership and engagement, not its evasion and obstruction.”

Notes to editors:

The human rights groups who wrote to the investors are: Amnesty International, the African Coalition for Corporate Accountability (ACCA), African Resources Watch (AFREWATCH), the UK Corporate Responsibility Coalition (CORE Coalition), the London Mining Network, Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and Southern Africa Resources Watch.

Legal documents and further information on the class action suit can be found at a website dedicated to the case: The Children of Kabwe.

Journalists can access photos to use with credit here.

Photos: Lawrence Thompson