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‘The air is unbreathable’: Congolese living near a foundry say they are being poisoned

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For weeks now, Cyrille Traoré Nbembi has been filming video after video of the black smoke coming out of an old foundry and factory located just a few metres from his home in Vindoulou, an area on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire, in Congo. As his family and neighbours continue to suffer health problems, Nbembi reached out to the FRANCE 24 Observers team – and is calling on the government to take action

Cyrille Traoré Ndembi moved to Vindoulou, a town near Pointe-Noire, Congo in 2019. His garden opens onto the Metssa Congo foundry. The foundry specialises in recycling materials like lead and aluminium. It has been in operation since 2012. 

Our Observer says that, just a few months after his family moved into the area, they all started having health problems. When he discovered that many of his neighbours were also experiencing the same symptoms, he decided to form a collective in a bid to fight for change and hold the foundry accountable.

I’m at my home right now. The factory is just behind me. There’s just an alley between us. The factory is barely 10 metres away.

And that’s not all. There’s a private school in the neighbourhood. It’s about 50 metres from the factory. It has 450-470 students. 

Just below the roof, behind me, it’s open. The corrugated iron lets the smoke escape. 

The smoke gets all over the neighbourhood, inside the houses and even the classrooms. 

Everyone around the factory complains that the air is unbreathable. 

Four or five months after we moved here, my whome family was suffering. We had cases of pneumonia, bronchopneumonia, and bronchitis. 

The factory was temporarily shut down after a visit by local authorities, in August 2020. Back then, the ministry for the environment also established a commission to monitor the factory. Several locals also underwent medical exams, according to the Ministry of the Environment.  

However, the factory opened up again just three months later. Our Observer says that he remains in the dark about what is actually happening at the factory and if any safety measures are being enforced. He believes that the results of the medical examinations undergone by locals were “confiscated” by someone. Because even though members of the community have asked the ministry of the environment “repeatedly” for the results, they have never been shared. 

Ndembi decided in March 2023 to take matters into his own hands and test some locals’ blood for lead content.  

Our team looked at the results of these tests. Those tested had between 240 to 500 micrograms of lead in their blood. These are considered high levels that could lead to health problems, says Philippe Glorennec, a researcher and lecturer in public health at French institute Inserm.

He said that symptoms associated with lead poisoning are varied and so you need a blood test in order to diagnose it. In extremely serious cases (when people have more than 2,000 micrograms of lead in their blood), lead poisoning can lead to death. 

It remains difficult to establish a clear cause and effect between the foundry and the health problems experienced by locals. However, generally speaking, there is a high rate of lead poisoning in populations living near foundries in poor conditions. Ingesting lead is the most common cause, but people can also have issues when breathing lead in, Glorennec says. 

The Metssa Congo factory told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that “the Congolese government has given us a number of recommendations to mitigate several imperfections on the ground that Metssa is implementing according to the indicated schedule”.

The company also said they had all the necessary authorisations to remain in operation.  

The Congolese Minister for the Environment Arlette Soudan-Nonault is in charge of the file on this factory, in conjunction with the ministry of industry. She told our team that they had shut down the factory several times in order to get them to comply with certain requirements.

We have asked this factory several times to comply. I have already had it shut down for its failure to comply with the rules in force, and I won’t hesitate to do it again.

The sub-prefect of Kouilou, Alphonse Koutana, said that he would pay a visit to the factory imminently and wouldn’t hesitate to close it if there were irregularities. 

This story originally appeared on France24

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