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You Don't Want To Mess With An Angry Mother

Phyllis Omido is one of six winners of the 2015 Goldman Environmental prizes.
Courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize
Phyllis Omido is one of six winners of the 2015 Goldman Environmental prizes.

In the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, Phyllis Omido knew that industry could pose a danger to the surrounding communities. She'd worked on environmental impact assessment reports for several factories.

But when her 2 1/2-year-old son, King David, got sick with a mysterious condition, it didn't occur to her that it might be from environmental toxins. He had a high fever that wasn't responding to medication. He couldn't sleep. He was plagued with diarrhea, and his eyes became runny. He spent two weeks in the hospital, and still no one could figure out what was wrong.

"The doctors had failed to find malaria, typhoid, the normal diseases they usually test for," Omido says. A colleague who was visiting her in the hospital asked about lead exposure. At the time Omido was working as an office administrator for EPZ Refinery in Mombasa, which melted down used car batteries and sold the scrap lead for export.

"That was the first time it crossed my mind that maybe it could be lead poisoning," she says. And it turned out she was right.

When King David got sick, she was still breast-feeding him. Most days his baby sitter would bring him to her office at lunchtime. He'd also come by in the evening, she says, "When the lady left for her home, she'd drop him at the office."

After she got his diagnosis, she felt guilty.

"It was very heartbreaking for me," the 36-year-old single mother says, "because I felt like I was the one who'd made him sick." While her breast milk could have contained lead, it's also possible there was lead in the air and dirt around their home.

Then her reaction turned to anger. She quit her job and demanded that the company pay her son's medical bills. It agreed to pay her an amount equal to the hospital bill but labeled it a severance payment. It also demanded that she sign a nondisclosure agreement. She signed it, then immediately violated it.

Omido launched a campaign to shut down the battery recycling operation entirely. In the slum of Owino Uhuru, where the smelter was based, she told anyone who would listen that the plant was emitting toxic levels of lead. She called on health officials to intervene. She got arrested protesting against the refinery.

After a five-year battle, the plant closed last year. This week in recognition of her efforts, Omido was named the 2015 Africa winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which comes with $175,000 to pursue her "vision of a renewed and protected environment."

Omido says she felt obligated to lobby against the lead smelting operation because the owners were polluting the informal settlement of Owino Uhuru in this impoverished city on the Indian Ocean. She says the factory had never filed an environmental impact assessment and thus shouldn't have been licensed to operate. But, she claims, government officials looked the other way.

She also says that the plant made no attempt to protect its workers. Foreign managers put on protective gear and masks whenever they entered the plant., she says, but "the workers just worked. Sometimes they'd take a piece of rag and tie it around their noses but they didn't have any protective gear. At that point when I was still there, they didn't know that this [air] was poisonous. They were just protecting themselves from the smoke, the acid, the stench."

Human Rights Watch says three workers died from lead poisoning from the EPZ Refinery.

NPR was unable to independently confirm the deaths. Efforts to reach the former owners of the facility were unsuccessful.

Omido blames the Kenyan government as much as the foreign owners of the refinery for the toxic pollution. She says even after ministry of health officials were told about the lead problems at the battery plant, they did nothing. She now plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the company and the government to force them to clean up contaminated soil around the shuttered factory.

Her son just turned 9 and has recovered fully. They still live in Mombasa but no longer in the Owino Uhuru slum. Omido now works at an environmental and human rights group she founded called the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.