A number of workers at Namibia Customs Smelter (NCS) in Tsumeb have been diagnosed with cancer-related illnesses caused by the high arsenic levels in imported copper from Bulgaria and Peru.
The imported copper has a high concentration of toxic materials and has been rejected in many countries around the world.
The copper types processed at the Tsumeb smelter include the Chelopech from Bulgaria, El Brocal from Peru as well as Pyrites and Trafficula.
In 1998, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA issued a proposed regulation to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants from primary copper smelters, arguing that air toxics are those pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects.
Primary copper smelting is the industry which refines copper concentrate from mined ore to anode grade copper, using pyrometallic processes.
Smelting includes the handling and blending of ore concentrate; the drying of copper concentrate; the smelting of concentrate to matte grade copper; the conversion of matte grade copper to blister grade copper; the refining of blister grade copper to anode grade copper; and the pouring of copper anodes.
One of the affected workers, 45-year-old Vilho Kristof (pictured on cover page), who has cancerous blisters on both legs, said the NSC management does not want to acknowledge that he contracted skin cancer as a result of the poor working conditions at the smelter.
“The management simply does not care about our health. I first started itching and later developed painful blisters around my legs. I alerted the management who only referred me to a local doctor who failed to diagnose me. The doctor simply said I was Ok and should go back to work although I was seriously sick,” said Kristof, a father of seven.
When his blisters started bleeding, Kristof was allowed to seek medical help from a local Government hospital which later referred him to Windhoek where he was diagnosed with cancer.
Kristof said that the smelter company management told him that cancer is not a work-related illness and thus he was not entitled to any benefit and was fired at the end of June this year.
Another worker, Pius Ndahepele who suffers from skin cancer as a result of being exposed to copper dust within the smelter told The Villager that management wanted to get rid of him by using a local doctor who frequently advised him to quit the job.
One does not need to be told that Ndahepele suffers from skin cancer as the signs are all over his face and arms. His skin is dark and he said it sometimes peels off and blood flows. He says it is very painful.
“I suspect the doctor is working with the management to get rid of me so that the company does not end up paying me anything. It has happened to many other workers who have been retrenched and we do not know whether they were paid anything as this cancer is slowly killing us,” said Ndahepele.
Oscar Kakungha, who joined the smelter two years ago, suffers from abdominal pains which he blamed on inhaling acidic smoke.
“I started itching and later my abdomen got swollen. I was sent to a doctor hired by the smelter who said that I was well when in fact I was very sick. I decided to see another doctor who later referred me to Windhoek Rhino Park private hospital where pictures of my abdomen where taken which showed the extent of damage done,” explained Kakungha.
Kakungha also said management refused to take responsibility for his health although medical records showed that his condition is a result of inhaling acidic smoke.
He also accused the smelter of hiding information from the workers since monthly tests of workers’ urine samples are done to analyse the extent of their exposure to the acid but does not make its findings available to them.
Fillemon Nghinamito lost his left eye after serious acidic burns on his neck, and said the management has refused to pay him anything and struggles to fend for his own treatment.
Nghinamito was retrenched without any benefits and the management told him to claim his money from Social Security.
“Right now my eye only sees darkness. It’s completely dead and this was due to severe burns from acidic copper during work. I haven’t been working for the past two months, yet when I started working here my eyesight was 100%,” said Nghinamito who also suffers from a swollen leg and skin cancer.
The cancer related ailments are not confined to the smelter workers only, but also to workers who are working for contractors such as the Joweller and TransNamib.
Walter Haihambo drives a loading machine for a smelter contractor company Jewellor. His face and arms are now dark with burns.
Haihambo said he started working at the smelter two months ago and was promised that the working environment is safer. However, due to the nature of his work that involves offloading copper, he is exposed to much toxic dust which has burned and darkened his face and arms.
“Our machines do not have windows and each time acidic dust keep blowing into our faces and affecting our skin. There are many drivers like me affected but are too afraid to talk about the poor conditions for fear of losing their job,” said Haihambo.
Nghipunyati Johaness, who works for Trans Namib, claims that he was dismissed from his work last week after a doctor recommended that he was not fit to continue working at the smelter unloading Trans Namib copper truck.
“I was retrenched because of the high level of exposure I have gotten from the acidic dust nothing else. Now I do not understand why I should be fired when in fact I could have been changed to other places of Trans Namib where there is no dust as per the doctor recommendations,” questioned Nghipunyati.
Nghipunyati said that he is left a sick man, with no work to support his siblings and his aging mother who only depend on her monthly Government pension.
Petrus Muupa, who works for the smelter and also sustained serious burns on his neck a year ago from the arsenic copper said that when the management took him to hospital he was warned against talking to the public or media about it and he was kept in isolation most of the time.
However, after he reported the situation to the councillor, the management told him that he politicised the issue and they refused to pay him and directed him to the Social Security.
“However, when I approached the social security I was told that the money was claimed by a doctor who acted on the instructions from the management and this just show how serious is the corruption within the smelter management,” said Muupa.
Muupa has since been diagnosed with cancer and cannot even move his neck around.
Tsumeb based medical practitioners, Dr. Philip Batholomae and Dr. Pretorius are the two doctors singled out by the workers as being involved with their treatment.
The Onyaanya Constituency of the Oshikoto Regional Council has since taken up the issue alerting the Ministry of health, and requesting an independent investigation team from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be dispatched to the Tsumeb smelter.
Workers have also accused Weatherly International of lying about its financial status to enable it to close the local copper mines in order to have the toxic copper imported into the country.
In addition to that, workers also questioned who authorized the smelter to import the dangerous copper into the country for it to be processed at the local smelter. Lets find who authorised.
Sick or injured workers only get one day’s leave from the two doctors and this has resulted in workers having days deducted when they are absent from work because of their illnesses.
Workers want the Government to engage Weatherly to voluntarily relinquish the mining rights to the closed copper mines to ensure an end to the use of imported copper as soon as possible.
They blame Weatherly for deliberately closing the Namibian copper mines in the area to allow Canadian based Dundee Precious Metals Inc to bring in their dangerous imported copper which has been rejected by most smelters worldwide.
Dundee Precious Metals (DPM) has since begun expanding NCS by adding an oxygen plant to double capacity to 240 000 tonnes of copper annually.
DPM which owns Chilopech mine in Bulgaria bought the smelter business from Weatherly International Plc for US$33m last November.
London Stock Exchange-listed Weatherly sold the smelting operation to DPM to raise cash to settle debts and re-open three of its mothballed copper mines in Namibia.
The Tsumeb smelter currently has an annual smelting capacity of 120 000 tonnes.
The Tsumeb smelter has previously treated material from Chambishi Copper Mines in Zambia.
The smelter treats 120 000 tonnes of copper from Chilopech Mine, half its capacity and the remaining half comes from commercial contracts.
The company plans, in the long term, to add a sulphuric acid plant to supply the sulphuric acid to Namibia’s booming uranium industry.
All this while the workers burn.
NCS Vice President and General Manager Hans Nolte has confirmed that there is a problem with arsenic in the imported copper used at the mine.
Nolte was quick, however, to defend the level of the arsenic in the copper arguing that it is the same as the one from the copper that was mined from the closed Tsumeb Company Limited (TCL).
He also said that he is aware of the health complains by some workers but said the illnesses has nothing to do with the company.
“The company is in possession of the doctor’s reports that state that the workers illnesses are not work related. Their illnesses are personal and confidential but as a company we have done our utmost best to help these individuals get medical help using our own resources,’’ said Nolte.
Nolte shot down allegations that the company’s private doctors are covering up the effects of arsenic on workers.
“I have nothing to hide. We have expert advice which says that workers’ chances of contracting cancer as a result of exposure to arsenic are very minimal. Experts told us that chances of a worker contracting cancer due to being exposed to arsenic are the same as for an individual who smokes 12 cigarettes a day. Which means that a worker may only contract cancer if they are exposed to arsenic for 30 years,” said Nolte.
Asked why the smelter does not treat copper from local mines operated by Weatherly, Nolte said it makes business sense for Weatherly to have their copper processed in China as smelters in that country charge much cheaper than the local smelter.
The local copper exported to China however does not contain arsenic material.
In a report dated 15 August 2011, Chairperson of the Oshikoto Regional Council Marx Nekongo stated that the arsenic effects are hitting hard on workers bodies and lungs.
“There is arsenic that is damaging people’s bodies and even lungs. The copper melted in Tsumeb is from Bulgaria which is too dangerous and is rejected elsewhere in the world. The question remains as to why it should be melted in Namibia,” one of the paragraphs in the report stated.
The Villager is in possession of the report which further says that the Regional Executive Committee resolved that the Oshikoto Regional Council as a matter of urgency should invite the line Ministers of Trade and Industries, Mines and Energy Health and Social Services as well as of Labour and Social Welfare to an urgent meeting in Tsumeb to brief them on the issue.
Tsumeb Mayor Ndangi Linekela Shetekela told The Villager Government should make the smelters responsible for the pollution its causing. He said most of the residents of the garden town frequently catch flu due to the polluted air.
“We need guarantees that we will be living in this town for generations and that means something needs to be done urgently on the arsenic affecting our people. Flu related illnesses in this part of Namibia are not as seasonal as in other towns,” said Shetekela, who is currently engulfed with a bout of flu.
Shetekela said there are areas around Tsumeb that are too polluted and the town cannot expand to these areas as they are declared unfit for residential settlements.
Below are some comments made by mining and medical professionals involved:
Dr. Bartholomae (one of the doctors attending to NCS workers)
“I am not in charge of occupational health. I will not be in a position to comment much as I am a private practitioner. I see private patients referred to me by the mine and some of them I have referred to specialists in Windhoek. I know there is a problem between the company and some employees currently. Dr. Pretorius should be able to advise you accordingly.”
Bartholomae said there are a lot of workers who suffer skin rashes from the mine but stopped short of labelling it as cancerous.
“I have never diagnosed anyone with cancer. Mainly, they are skin rashes as a result of the dust and at times exposure to the sun at the mine. There are a lot of other reasons why they develop the rashes. I have one employee who is under treatment and observation at an oncologist in Windhoek.”
“Workers are, however, wrong to think that all skin conditions are work related. I don’t blame them because they don’t know.”
Mike Heita: Vice President Mine Workers Union
“I am trying my best from a national position. People are exposed to acid here. We tabled the issue at the national executive committee last week and we are looking into the matter seriously as our people are suffering. It’s acid and smoke.
Veston Malango: General Manager Chamber of Mines
We are aware of the environmental concerns coming out of Tsumeb and the health risk they pose. We are eagerly waiting for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that we have been assured by the NCS anytime now. By now, we hope that study is underway and NCS must come for a public hearing where the community should voice their concerns before they draft a final environmental assessment. NCS should be the one to tell us whether an EIA was ever conducted before they started operating.
For over 40 years, the Tsumeb smelter has been able to treat arsenic and lead bearing copper concentrates but this is because we were not importing the copper from Europe. A scientific study (EIA) should now prove whether the new owners’ concentrates are harmful to the community or not and we are waiting for that study, eagerly.
Director of Health in Oshikoto Region: Maria Kavazembi
We are still busy with the investigations since the issue was brought to us by counsellors in the region. I hope to have concluded the investigations by Tuesday and hand it over to my supervisor, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health.
Director Theo Nghimtila: Ministry of Environment and Tourism
My office has not been informed of the situation. The only problem we know is the old problem about water pollution from the mines. That issue has been investigated, since the old mine. But this is news to me. After the closure of the old mine, there was a serious investigation that was carried out on that mine and it was submitted to us. Everything was aimed at rehabilitating the mine. If the new owners did not take up the recommendations from the old mine, then we are likely to have an environmental health disaster.
Dr. Pretorius (NCS Occupational Health Practitioner)
I am not treating them or working for the company. I just monitor. It must be Dr. Bartholomae who can best advise. I am an occupational health practitioner. There is some exposure to some of the workers, and yes, they react to the effects of arsenic on the skin which causes the rash. I don’t know who should be blamed though. Permanent effects are dealt with by the company. I am an independent professional. I consult over 600 workers from NCS during my yearly examination and the percentage of infection is not that high. Currently I know of six cases currently affected, with one being the most severe. I even recommended the company to remove that employee from work. I took over from January and they had already been exposed over the past year or so. There is some truth in some of the accusations however and the company is working flat out to find a remedy because the arsenic levels are higher. Every two months I conduct blood test and some of them are high, while some are lower than the normal levels. Arsenic levels in Namibia should be 50 micrograms per gram of creatinine, according to the law, in this case, urinary arsenic levels are either more or less, and the ratio I would say, is 50/50.I am in favour of monitoring this issue properly.