Zambia Struggles to Control Toxic PCBs
By Singy Hanyona
LUSAKA, Zambia, September 1, 2000 (ENS) - The Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), the sole supplier of Zambia's hydroelectric power, has warned the public against unscrupulous people stealing oil which contains toxic chemicals from the company's transformers. This oil contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
According to Mellon Chinjila, an official at ZESCO Environment and Social Affairs Unit in Lusaka, the contaminated oil is sold to the unsuspected public as cooking oil and skin lightening lotion.
Chinjila warns that though this oil may appear to be normal cooking oil, it can in fact cause human organ damage and infertility in both males and females. "ZESCO has in the past months been distributing awareness materials on the potential dangers of PCBs to human health and the environment," Chinjila said.
PCBs belong to a group of toxic compounds known as persistant organic polluntants (POPs). They have been used widely as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment.
PCBs are highly stable and accumulate in fat tissues of both animals and human beings. Any contact with the skin can cause cancer and skin rash. Equipment older than 1978 is most likely to contain PCBs.
It is against this background that the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) with support from the Canadian International Development Assistance (CIDA), recently organised a national PCB conference.
The forum which drew mining executives, researchers and environmentalists, provided an opportunity for the introduction of the new hazardous waste management regulations covering PCBs. Disposal and PCB management programmes undertaken by ECZ were covered.
Opening the conference, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Dr. Jewette Masinja said some experts started working on a PCBs management programme initiated in 1998 by ECZ, working in conjuction with other stakeholders.
Saphira Nachizya, an ECZ spokesperson, said in an interview that public awareness of the dangers of PCBs is essential as ignorance could easily lead to people abusing these chemicals.
"There is need for public participation in issues that directly affect them. The media is not left out in this crusade. Information on PCBs should especially be targeted at workers operating in conditions that easily expose them to equipment containing PCBs," Nachizya said.
Acting ECZ director Edward Zulu told conference participants that Zambia is looking forward to being among the countries that will sign the international convention governing PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants now under negotiation.
Zulu says due to lack of proper disposal mechanisms for PCBs, a temporary storage site is being constructed in Siavonga district in southern Zambia.
"Zambia has no capacity to dispose off PCBs as they are. So we need to store them somewhere and then find a way of disposing them through European approved channels," Zulu said.
Francois Huppe, a consultant working with a joint project ECZ has with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) said CIDA has provided support in terms of technical guidelines and training of the management team at ECZ and for Zambian industry.
"CIDA has provided training and tools for the officers to be able to handle PCBs. Canadian advisors and experts worked with Zambians to give them hands on experience. We approached the electricity supply company, and we had to form operational teams with offices at various units in the Environmental Council," he said.
Huppe says since the aim of the project is not to store PCBs but to dispose of and completely eliminate them.
Both ECZ and officials at Kariba North Bank Power Generation Bank, confirm the effective management of the PCBs storage facility in Siavonga.
Wesley Lwiindi of Kariba North Bank (KNBC) states that according to specifications, the site is supposed to be located about 500 metres (541 yards) away from the main watercourse in Kariba. The chemicals should not be allowed to drain into the main water system. It's a very safe site and the best that the Environmental Council could recommend," he said.
Chinjila confirms that an Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted to ascertain the effects the site would have on the community and the environment in general, and a brief report was presented to ECZ. "All stakeholders were involved including the Zambezi River and Zambia Revenue Authorities, as the area was a complicated zone," he said.
Nelson Manda, an inspector at ECZ and a beneficiary of the CIDA-ECZ training on PCB management says the experience gained from the training has been practical within the Zambian context.
"In the first place, we developed data for ZESCO. This was not a half-baked inventory. We did a standard check list for all necessary points on PCBs. The volumes of equipment, the volume of the oils in the transformers were determined. We did a country wide inventory on all equipment with field tests," Manda said.
The conference participants had an opportunity to tour some of the PCB contaminated sites in the Zambian copperbelt. These include the newly acquired Mopani Copper Mines Plc, fomerly Nkana Division of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM).
At Nkana Copper Mines, traces of oil thought to contain PCBs were noted around the walls of a building where the theft of thousands of litres of PCB-laced oil was reported.
Cyril Lukeke, an official at the mine, said the company will have to demolish the building so that the United Nations standards for disposal of PCBs is attained.
"At ZCCM, we realised the problem of PCBs even before the Zambian legislators did. The problem has been with us since 1985 but due to lack of funding, the oil which is suspected to contain PCBs is still not disposed off," Lukeke said.
At ZESCO's 330 KV sub-station, the capacitor bank is scheduled to have its transformers replaced as a cleanup measure. The capacitors containing PCBs that have been in service since the 1960s will now be removed and placed at the new Sub-station under the ZESCO Power Rehabilitation Project.
ECZ lawyer Aswell Chisanga says PCBs are covered under the Basal Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal. The Environmental Pollution and Control Act brought into force the provisions of the Basal Convention in Zambian law.
"This means that no person shall import any hazardous waste into Zambia. As PCBs fall under hazardous waste, they will therefore be governed by the provisions of these regulations," Chisanga said.