Zambia: Toxics Worry Critics of African Free Trade Pact

LUSAKA, Zambia -- Environmentalists in Zambia are concerned that a new free trade agreement will open the floodgates for dangerous imported products and industrial wastes.

Last month, leaders of nine of the 20 countries belonging to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) gathered in the Zambian capital to sign the continent's first free trade agreement.

Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe committed to complete freedom of movement of goods, services, capital, labor and persons within the COMESA free trade area.

But with the free movement of goods and increasing integration with the global economy comes the risk of dangerous imported goods, particularly in Zambia. The country has weak consumer protection laws and no requirement that local manufacturers or producers disclose toxic ingredients in their products.

This means hazardous household substances, such as soaps and creams containing high levels of mercury, can still be produced for Zambians and other African markets, despite being banned in Europe.

According to a recent report prepared for the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia (WECSZ), these chemical products are used mainly by the women who want to make their skin light.

They include Mekako round anticeptic, Jaribu Gold Kwanza, Diproson, Clere Lemon Fresh and Yesako Dermatological Crme, said the report.

Such products contain levels of mercury dangerous to health and the environment, concluded the report's author, Professor Jerome Nriagu of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan.

"Mercury poisoning can cause serious permanent nerve and kidney damage," wrote Nriagu. "Symptoms of acute mercury poisoning include diminished or poor hearing, speech disorders, loss of memory, poor vision, rapid heart beat, lack of sleep, pain in hands and feet, poor body coordination, sweating, withdrawal symptoms or shyness, difficulty with fine motor control - such as hand writing - and headaches.

"Young babies and children born to women exposed to mercury may have brain and nervous problems," he continued.

WECSZ education officer Ernest Chingaipe warned that free trade will make these products widely available unless an intervention program is established.

"The chemical products identified as poisonous to humans are too bad for animal life and the environment," said Chingaipe. "They cause pollution. This means that they are environmental as well as household hazards if not used properly."

Obert Musongo, a chemist at the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC), said mercury from soaps and creams ends up in wells, streams and lakes, tainting drinking water.

Zambia's weak consumer protection laws mean its people are shopping in the dark. Although Zambia has a registry program for toxic chemical production, companies are not required to disclose how much toxic material is used in household products.

Many of the chemicals are found in household products such as paints, cleansing fluids, glue, oil, shoe polish, paraffin, gas cylinders, spray cans, pesticides and insecticides, fertilizers, rat poison, batteries and shampoo.

Other chemicals fill offices and factories - aerosols, artificial sweeteners, dyes, inks, pharmaceuticals, plastic refrigerants and synthetic fabrics.

In a statement, the Environmental Council of Zambia said, "No one is reminding shopkeepers or buyers of the products that they are illegal, pose a threat to human health and contaminate the local environment."

Zambia is not the only African country dealing with toxic waste problems. In research conducted in 1992, Professor Nriagu found high levels of mercury in fish in Lake Victoria, which is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

Since no industries around the lake produce or use mercury, researchers concluded that mercury was coming from homeowners using products that contained mercury.

In a report two years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) put the annual global production of chemicals at US$1.5 trillion. WHO reported that 100,000 chemicals are now on the market and that 1,000 to 2,000 new ones are added each year.

"Clearly, we are sailing into unchartered waters," said the WHO report. "We are all part of an experimental generation and the full effects will not be known for decades to come."

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), each year some 100 tonnes of mercury, 3,800 tonnes of lead, 3,600 tonnes of phosphates and 60,000 tonnes of detergents enter the Mediterranean Sea as a result of human activities.

UNEP said while chemical technology has helped mankind, disposal of many chemicals has been at considerable cost to the environment, "making ourselves hostages to progress."

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