Fidel Omitta lies on a thin blanket spread on the floor of his mother’s house in Osiri Matanda, some 30 kilometres from Migori town. He is unable to make any meaningful movement.
Aged five years, Omitta should be outside playing with his peers, but a fresh wound on his right hand, laboured breathing and the permanent sadness on his face, tell the story of a stolen childhood.
He neither walks nor talks. His mother, Jullita Atieno, has had to learn his needs from a sign language system only she understands and which mainly relies on Omitta’s facial expressions.
Her son’s woes are suspected by a group of environmental health experts to be linked to mercury exposure from the gold mining exploits at Osiri Matanda, one of Kenya’s biggest artisanal gold mining sites, and where Jullita, and many other mothers from the area, work.
“He thinks you are a health officer looking to poke his wound,” his mother says, explaining the petrified expression on her son’s face the moment he realises we are as strangers.
Jullita welcomes us into her two-roomed house that she shares with her husband, John Omitta, and seven children. Her son is just one of numerous survivors of suspected mercury poisoning in the area.
Milka Akoth, a 27-year-old mother of three, is also struggling to understand her daughter, Sheila Velma’s sudden growth retardation. At two years, Velma had reached her growth milestones, including sitting, walking and talking.
But in January she suffered a series of seizures after which she started retrogressing mentally and suffering extreme muscle loss. She gets painful muscle spasms in the few minutes we are at her house and her mother can only watch helpless.
“I have not had peace since she stopped walking and talking. I just want her to be OK. I plan on taking her to the Kisii Hospital, but I don’t have the money,” says Milka, cheeks in palms, seated next to her husband, Elias Obose.
Velma and the junior Omitta are among about 20 children born with birth defects by women with elevated mercury level exposure within the mining district. More young victims remain hidden from the public as some locals attribute their deformities and other symptoms such as seizures to witchcraft.
Most of these children, who have been identified by Kenya’s Centre for Environmental Justice and Development (CEJAD) for an upcoming in-depth analysis, have lost motor skills and are unable to speak.
They exhibit physical and neurological deformities. The heavy metal, regarded as a neurological poison, is known to cause crippling disabilities, nervous system disorders and birth defects.
It is believed that some of the children suffered the damage before birth, as their mothers handled mercury while processing gold during their pregnancies. Post-delivery exposure is also highly likely.
Mercury is used in the final stages of gold extraction, and with lack of specialist tools for the process, most of the women we saw at the mines handle the chemical with their bare hands.
In addition, a roasting stage to extract the precious metal from the mercury, often done in domestic set-ups, ends vaporising it, leading to direct exposure through fume inhalation.
In the case of Velma, it is suspected that she is a victim of prolonged exposure. Her mother reported back to work a week after giving birth to her. Unable to afford a nanny, Milka carried her to work everyday, including into the roasting rooms.
A study published a year ago by IPEN, a global network of organisations, including CEJAD, working towards the elimination of toxic chemicals, found that the use of mercury by women of childbearing age was posing a “serious and substantial threat to their health and the developing foetus” in many parts of the world, Kenya included. Milka was one of the survey’s participants.
The report showed that about 71 percent of women, from three gold mining sites in Kenya had elevated mercury levels of 0.58 ppm (parts per million — the measure of mercury concentration) in the hair samples, with 44 percent exceeding the 1ppm threshold.
Estimation of mercury through hair samples measures the level of methylmercury, the most toxic form of the element.
Recent studies indicate that negative developmental effects may occur even at lower levels, and that the 0.58 threshold should be adopted as the measure below which impacts on the developing foetus are negligible.
To break down the figures, the IPEN study found that 64 percent of samples from Osiri Matanda and other mining sites in Migori, like Mikei, exceeded the 1 ppm measure.
Some samples from the Kenyan mining sites had some of the second-highest levels of mercury body burden recorded, during the global study, reaching 81.12 ppm to only trail Indonesia’s Sekotong region that had the highest mercury burden case of 90.84 ppm.
Sekotong has some of the world’s worst cases of birth defects emerging from mercury poisoning. Tens of children in the area have severe deformities including babies born without hands and fingers.
“In the absence of urgent action, generations of women and their offspring will bear the brunt of mercury contamination, while others will profit from ongoing mercury pollution,” warns the report.
Kenya is among 128 countries that signed the Minamata Convention on mercury in 2013, which aims to limit the production and use of the heavy metal.
However, data indicates that illegal imports and trade in mercury continues silently in the country.
Findings from a 2017 UN Environment report show that Kenya and South Africa served as the main supply hubs for mercury used in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa itself.
The artisanal miners locally get mercury from black market dealers, who sell a cork-full at Sh1,500, making it a lucrative business.
Locally, issues regarding the use of mercury have also been left under the environment docket, with the Health ministry remaining on the sidelines, and only getting involved when called upon by NGOs.
“We have put forward a request for Kenya to ratify the Minamata Convention and the matter is now before the Attorney-General’s office, and we are awaiting a way forward and for its implementation,” said Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Director of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, Richard Mwendandu.
The signatories of the Minamata Convention are, among other roles, required to develop programmes and strategies that identify and protect vulnerable populations at risk of mercury exposure and come-up with science-based health guidelines and set targets on mercury exposure reduction.
Additionally they are required to make available appropriate healthcare services for prevention, treatment and care of populations affected by mercury exposure, centres that should be supported by qualified personnel.
The Environment ministry is yet to reach affected communities, but has engaged some sectors including the dental association especially on the exposure of the dental amalgam. The ministry has also successfully lobbied for hospitals to stop using mercury thermometers.
The gold mining communities in Kenya are set to continue suffering from the ravages of mercury poisoning following the sluggish response from the government to curb the use of the heavy metal at the mines.
“Engagement with the affected by Health ministry is still low, and there is a lot of confusion because health is a devolved function.
"But the biggest challenge is that the Environment and the Health ministries haven’t found a way of coming together to solve the challenges posed by mercury, says Griffins Ochieng, an environmental health expert and project coordinator at CEJAD.