Acting Minister of Health Brenda Tambatamba says Government is aware of an outbreak of a strange disease in Kanona Ward in Serenje District and Chitambo Ward in Chitambo District in Central Province.
Recently, Centre for Environment Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Maggie Mwape has consistently called for fair treatment of the affected employees in Serenje and evacuation abroad for specialized treatment.
Addressing Parliament, Ms Tambatamba said on 20th September 2022, Government through the Ministry of Health responded to an alert concerning employees of the Southern Africa Ferro Alloys Limited – SAFAL who presented the loss of balance, tremors, impaired speech, uncomfortable drooling or dropping saliva from the mouth and decreased movements.
She said Ministry of Health records indicated that 28 people had shown the above symptoms but no mortality had been associated to the disease.
Ms Tambatamba said Occupational Health and Safety Institute – OHSI was notified and blood samples taken from 281 employees to determine the cause of the problem.
The Cabinet Minister said results revealed that 271, which was 96.4% of the employees, had blood levels of manganese above the normal level.
“The results showed in the ranges of 0.116 to 0.623 parts per million. The average was 0.244 parts per million. The normal range is 0.005 parts per million to 0.02 parts per million,” she said.
Ms Tambatamba said the strange disease that was observed was Manganese Poisoning which resulted from repeated occupational exposure to manganese.
“Manganese Poisoning is a toxic condition resulting from chronic exposure to manganese. It is mainly manifested as a neurological disorder with symptoms that include tremors, difficulty in walking and facial muscle spasms,” she said.
Ms Tambatamba revealed that SAFAL changed the type of manganese ore feed on 9th March 2022 to 5th September 2022.
The Cabinet Minister said the ore introduced was a fine manganese concentrate sourced from Sanhi Mining Limited domiciled in Kabwe District and later the concentrate was converted into pellets bound by 5% cement.
She said the development resulted in high dust films in the process of smelting at the plant which potentially increased the risk of workers over exposure to manganese in the platform, tapping and deking areas.
Ms Tambatamba said urgent measures had been put in place to contain the disease.
“Immediate suspension of sourcing and processing fine manganese concentrate from Sanhi Limited of Kabwe until such a time when the investigation by a Joint Team compromising of the Ministry of Labour’s Department of OSI and the Ministry of Health, Zambia Environmental Management Agency – ZEMA, Mine Safety Department and the Occupational Health and Safety Institute – SILICOSIS, are concluded,” she said.
Ms Tambatamba said medical surveillance of all workers would be conducted in line with the Occupational Health and Safety Act No. 36 of 2010 and introduce rotational work to avoid long periods of exposure.
The Minister said the employer was guided to notify the cases to Workers Compensation Fund Control Board for compensation purposes while all workers with symptoms were referred to the University Teaching Hospital – UTH in Lusaka for further management.
“All workers with manganese levels above the recommended concentration limits but without symptoms have been relocated to areas of low risk of exposure. Engineering controls instituted and to be assessed regularly to ascertain performance,” she said.
Ms Tambatamba added that prior to the incident, the Zambia Environmental Management Agency – ZEMA conducted an inspection and issued a Compliance Order to SAFAL to comply with the conditions set out in the Decision Letter.
“Prior to implementation, SAFAL was required to obtain all necessary authorizations under the Mines and Minerals Development Act, the Local Government Act, the Urban and Regional Planning Act, the National Heritage Conservation and Control Act, the Public Health Act, the Workers Compensation Act and the Energy Regulation Act Conditions 3.2.1 of the decision letter. SAFAL was required to put in place Occupational Health and Safety Measures. Conditions 3.2.3. of the Decision Letter. Provide employees with personal protective equipment and ensure that they undergo medical check ups in Conditions 3.2.5. of the Decision Letter,” she said.
Ms Tambatamba said a Joint Inspection Team had been constituted consisting of staff from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development, Zambia Environmental Management Agency – ZEMA, Mine Safety Department and the Occupational Health and Safety Institute – SILICOSIS and Mines Safety Department to urgently undertake full investigation of the risk assessment at SAFAL.
“Members of the public will be informed of the outcome of the investigation and appropriate actions to be taken. Further, this Joint Investigations Team will extend the exercise to all manganese processing plants in order to ensure compliance to all relevant laws. The Joint Investigations Team will ensure that all non compliant facilities and made to be compliant to the protection of human health and environment,” she said.
The Acting Minister of Health warned all manganese processing plants in the country to put in place measures to ensure that they were fully compliant to all relevant laws before the law enforcement wings visit them.
Ms Tambatamba was speaking in Parliament when responding to Chitambo Constituency Member of Parliament Chanda Mutale who was concerned about the manganese victims.
“Madam Speaker, having interacted with the affected people, it brings a lot of sadness because from the way the Minister is responding compared with what these people are going through, it is quiet sad. I am aware that up to now there is no cure for the disease that is affecting these people. My question to the Minister is, this Team which has been constituted to go and investigate about what is obtaining and the measures given to SAFAL, can you tell this house if the disease has stopped spreading because of the measures that you have put in place? I thank you Madam Speaker,” he said.
Pambashe Member of Parliament Ronald Chitotela Pambashe was concerned that several workers were affected.
“Madam Speaker, seating here and listen to the Minister respond, it sounds that this is an occupational safety hazard as much as it becomes a health issue, she is the right person to answer to this question because they are suffering from neurological disorder. Neurological degenerative condition has to do with the brain because of high exposure to radiation coming from manganese. This draws me to the people of Luapula where the largest part of manganese is being produced. Minister, understanding and bearing in mind that the occupation hazard under OHSI sits under your Ministry. Do you intend to intensify inspections in these factories and employing Labour and OSI Inspectors in districts where you may have not have staff as a preventive measure? I thank you Madam Speaker,” Mr. Chitotela said.
Mkushi North Member of Parliament Christopher Chibuye called for Investigations to be extended to Mkushi.
“Honourable Acting Minister of Health, in your explanation you have actually told the House that the team which has been constituted will be getting back on the ground to ascertain the disease. How soon will this team be on the ground and are they going to extend to areas like Mkushi where manganese Mines are mushrooming?” Mr. Chibuye questioned.
Kabwe’s Bwacha Member of Parliament Sydney Mushanga demanded that government discloses when it detected the problem.
“Minister, this is a very serious health matter looking at the high number of staff that are affected and exposed to manganese particles that are in their bodies. I want to find out when the Government came to know about this problem of the workers having manganese particles in their blood at SAFAL and those interventions that you itemized about 16 of them. Looking at the different Government departments who is doing what when it comes to the 16 measures that Government has put in place. Thank you very much, Madam Speaker,” Mr. Mushanga said.
In response, Acting Minister of Health Brenda Tambatamba said Government detected the problem in June 2022.
“When Government came to know? There is on going inspections that are undertaken by these various units that constitute this Ministerial team. As far back as June 2022, there was an inspection by ZEMA where issues of occupational health and safety were raised for not being complied to or the law was being breached. At the time, ZEMA actually suspended operations of SAFAL until they are compliant. After a few months, they went back in operation because matters of PPE, aaah Mos of the occupational safety matters that were raised were attended to. There are issues of protecting our workers of course aah growing more jobs so at that time they were allowed to start operating again. Until recently when this matter came up when the alarm was raised about the ailment, that is when another gear was engaged to deal with these matters that at UTH. I submit Madam Speaker,” Ms Tambatamba said.
Mkushi South Member of Parliament Davies Chisopa accused the company of negligence.
Shiwan’gandu Member of Parliament Steven Kampyongo wondered why the company had continued operating.
“Indeed, manganese mining has been there for a long and what could be new is this new precious sugilite which may also be posing a danger to those doing illegal mining. Honourable Minister, it would appear this factory is acting with impunity. You have stated that they were closed for being non compliant with the environmental requirements and when they got back into operation, we have seen their workers get affected by this peculiar disease which appears to be incurable and we need a multi-sectoral, your Ministry, Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Mines. Why is this mine is this mine still in operation with such potential danger? Who is being bribed? We smell corruption. ( Speaker asks Hon. MP to ask one question at a time). My question is who is being bribed to ignore the impunity of this manganese processing plant? I thank you Madam Speaker,” Mr. Kampyongo said.