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Anglo American South Africa has distanced itself from lead poisoning at Kabwe mine in Zambia as human rights lawyers prepare to launch a civil suit against the company on behalf of about 200 children living in villages near the mine who have been treated for lead poisoning.

Johannesburg attorneys Mbuyisa Moleele and London-based human rights law firm Leigh Day said on Friday they were preparing to bring the case to the South African courts where the Anglo American South Africa head office company is based.

“The purpose of the action will be to secure compensation for victims of lead poisoning, including the cost of an effective medical monitoring system for blood lead levels among the community,” said the lawyers on Friday.

Kabwe was the world’s largest lead mine and operated from 1915 until its closure in 1994.

Anglo American said on Friday that it had been one of a number of investors in the company that owned the Kabwe mine and had been far from being a majority owner.

“In the early 1970s, the company that owned the mine was nationalised by the government of Zambia and for more than 20 years thereafter the mine was operated by a state-owned body until its closure in 1994,” Anglo American said.

It charged that since the nationalisation of mines more than 40 years ago effectively placed these issues under the control of the Zambian government, “we are not in a position to comment further about the matter, but we certainly don't believe that Anglo American is in any way responsible for the current situation”.

It is alleged that from 1925 to 1974, Anglo American SA played a key role in the management of the medical, engineering and other technical services at the mine, and that it failed to take adequate steps to prevent lead poisoning of the local residents.

Zanele Mbuyisa, a director of Mbuyisa Moleele, said she was dismayed by the inequality and disregard shown by multinational companies like Anglo American.

“In this case we will argue that the environmental damage created has potentially contaminated almost three generations of men, women and children.”

The lawyers said that they had been investigating the case and been liaising with the local communities for the past two years.

Richard Meeran, a partner and head of Leigh Day’s international department, said it was “the worst environmental disaster I have seen in 30 years of practice”, adding this would not have been tolerated in Europe or the US.

“As a major multinational that holds itself out as a responsible corporate citizen, we believe Anglo American should compensate the lead poisoning victims and assist, practically and financially, in the prevention of ongoing lead poisoning of these communities,” Meeran said.

A series of reports has found very high levels of lead in the blood of a substantial proportion of the local population, in particular very young children.

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