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Kenya: Toxic lead threatening lives

People in a poor urban district outside Mombasa face serious health risks from toxic lead poisoning.

FILE: The group says at least three workers at the smelting facility in Owino Uhuru have died from lead poisoning, while around 3,000 are contaminated. Picture: Human Rights Watch.

JOHANNESBURG - Thousands of people in a poor urban district outside Mombasa face serious health risks from toxic lead poisoning, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

The toxic lead is alleged to be from a battery recycling plant in Kenya's second largest city.

The group says at least three workers at the smelting facility in Owino Uhuru have died from lead poisoning.

Around 3,000 other people have also been affected, according to the HWR.

Residents have reported an increase in sickness, miscarriages and impotence since the smelter began operations in 2007, the group said.

"At least three [people] have died and thousands are under threat from toxic lead poisoning because the Kenyan authorities didn't enforce their own environmental laws and regulations," said Jane Cohen, senior environment researcher at HRW.

"This is an urgent and ongoing crisis that needs immediate government action."

Watch Human Rights Watch's video: Kenya factory poisons community.

Researchers at HRW say no environmental impact assessment was done until after the industrial facility began operating.

A government investigation that began in 2009 found that the smelter had violated numerous laws and that its operations were endangering the health of workers and nearby residents.

Although the smelter was closed briefly, it reopened with few changes to its operations, workers and residents told HRW.

Workers also said there are no safeguards to protect the surrounding residential area.

After discovering in 2009 that her son was sick from lead poisoning, Phyllis Omido, a former office worker in the smelter, called on residents to write letters to the Public Health Agency and the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) informing them of the situation.

After months of no response, she organised peaceful protests in the streets of Mombasa.

In response to the protest, police arrested Phyllis and a number of community members forcing them to stand trial on charges of incitement of violence and unlawful assembly.

They were eventually acquitted.