Factory fumes in the neighbourhood of Vindoulou: “Children regularly vomit and cough a lot, especially when there is a lot of smoke.”

In the neighbourhood of Vindoulou, in the suburbs of Pointe-Noire, residents have long sounded the alarm about a factory owned by Metssa Congo, a subsidiary of the Indian group Metssa. The factory, which recycles used batteries and industrial products containing lead and aluminium, emits smoke daily into the air around people’s homes. It is in the middle of the neighbourhood, just 50m from a large school. Residents fear for their health: they have always reported frequent headaches and stomach aches, as well as noise pollution and environmental damage from the dust and fumes. “Children regularly vomit and cough a lot, especially when there is a lot of smoke,” reported one resident. A teacher said: “The children are breathing these fumes; it stings their eyes and throats. Sometimes we have to take them out of classes to allow them to breathe better and give them water.”

As a result of the residents’ complaints, and the absence of an environmental impact assessment and proper authorization to operate, the factory was closed by the regional Prefect in August 2020. The company paid for clinical examinations for residents during the closure, but the results of the various tests were not shared with them thereafter. Metssa Congo claims that it was “not authorized by the government to publicize the findings” of the health surveys but said that an audit had confirmed there were ‘no long-term risks to those residing in close proximity to our plant’. It said it ‘verbally communicated these results to the concerned individuals who approached us’. The residents’ collective denies this. 

In November 2020, the Ministry of Environment sent a letter authorising the company to resume operations, but noting that it must complete the steps to bring the site in line with environmental standards within a period of three months. Essentially, the Ministry recognised that the company did not have the necessary certificate of environmental compliance or authorisation to open, but nevertheless authorised it to resume its operations. No further information was shared thereafter on any measures taken by the company to comply with environmental regulations.

In March 2023, following an initiative undertaken by a collective of residents, blood samples were taken from 18 people living near the factory, including eight children. The tests showed that all 18 people had extremely high levels of lead in their blood. There is no level of lead concentration in the blood considered to be safe, but according to WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines, a concentration of 50 micrograms of lead per litre in the blood is the value at which clinical interventions should be initiated. Continued exposure to lead causes a range of gastrointestinal, hematological, and neurological disorders, especially in young children. Yet the levels measured in the Vindoulou residents ranged from 263 to 551 micrograms per litre, including for a 14-month-old baby—up to 11 times the WHO threshold.

In a response letter to Amnesty International, Metssa Congo denied any toxic nature of its emission of fumes thanks to its “cutting-edge control equipment”. Metssa Congo also said that the smoke was actually from the aluminium furnace, and unrelated to the lead furnace production. The company also claimed that they have all the legal documents to operate in Congo. The collective of residents of Vindoulou filed a complaint in June 2023 to the Pointe-Noire High Court requesting the suspension and the relocation of the Metssa factory, along with reparations.

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