Phyllis Omido
Phyllis Omido

Phyllis Omido

2015 Goldman Prize Recipient
Africa

  • Kenya
  • Toxic & Nuclear Contamination

After learning her own breast milk was making her baby sick—and realizing her child wasn’t the only one suffering from lead poisoning—Phyllis Omido galvanized the community in Mombasa to shut down the smelter that was exposing people to dangerous chemicals.

The burgeoning solar industry in Kenya has increased demand for lead, recovered by recycling car batteries in smelters. Shanty towns across Mombasa, where poor, marginalized workers are desperate for work, are hotspots for such industrial activity. Among them is Owino Uhuru, where a smelter emitted fumes laden with lead, often at night to avoid detection, and released untreated waste water that spilled into streams that residents use to wash, cook and clean.

Workers at the plant faced the most direct exposure to chemicals. They were provided one pair of flimsy cotton gloves per month, which quickly disintegrated after a few days. Once the gloves were gone, workers continued work with bare hands. In contrast, managers entering the factory did so in full protective gear.

Phyllis Omido was a young single mother with a baby boy when she was hired to manage the plant’s community relations. One of her first tasks was to put together an environmental impact report. Working with a team of experts, she found that the plant’s proximity to the local community left residents vulnerable to dangerous chemicals—and that the plant was likely operating under illegally obtained permits. Her report recommended closing the factory and relocating, but management dismissed the recommendations and removed Omido from the project.

About three months into her job, Omido’s infant son became violently ill and was hospitalized. Tests for malaria, typhoid, and other likely culprits all came back negative. Following a suggestion from a plant manager that it could be lead poisoning, doctors tested the baby’s blood and found that he had acutely high levels of lead, which had likely been passed along via his mother’s breast milk.

Her son’s medical bills quickly ballooned to more than $2,000, an insurmountable amount for Omido. She demanded that the plant pay for the hospital fees. The company paid her bills in exchange for her silence, but Omido felt a responsibility to the community. She quit her job and began cleaning houses to make ends meet and support her quest to bring justice to the workers and families impacted by the smelter.

With encouragement from a local pastor, Omido reached out to community members about what they had seen and experienced: chickens (often kept in backyards) died after drinking the water trickling out from the smelter. Children developed high fevers and complained of stomach aches. Women suffered miscarriages and stillbirths. Omido urged residents to consider lead poisoning as a possibility, often accompanying illiterate parents on hospital visits to help them explain the situation to doctors.

She founded the Center of Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) and convinced the government health center to test local community members for lead. All three of the children had lead poisoning. In fact, lead levels were so unbelievably high with one child that the doctors retested the boy. The result was the same: 37 micrograms per decileter of blood, almost 20 times the median blood lead level among children in the US. Local soil tests showed lead levels increased almost tenfold from 2008 to 2009, when the plant became operational.

Equipped with hard data, Omido went back to the plant’s management and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to shut down the smelter. Her plea fell on deaf ears, and she ramped up pressure with letter writing campaigns and peaceful street protests. In the face of mounting community pressure and tireless campaigning by Omido and CJGEA, the smelter ceased operations in January 2014.

Omido paid a personal price for this work. During a protest in April 2012, as she began assembling factory workers and residents, police arrested Omido and charged her with holding an illegal gathering and inciting violence. Her time in jail, along with a brutal attack by two armed men on her way home one night, left her with a deep fear for her safety and that of her son.

Since the plant’s closure, members of Kenya’s senate health committee have toured the former smelter site. Appalled at what they saw, they pledged to provide testing for all community members and clean up the contamination. Omido is now working to hold them to that commitment, building a court case based on Kenya’s constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for its citizens.

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