JOHANNESBURG: A top South African court on Friday granted UN experts a role in proceedings against Anglo American, which is being sued for alleged lead poisoning in a Zambian mining city.

Decades of lead mining have left Kabwe, around 150 kilometres (95 miles) north of the capital Lusaka, severely polluted, with serious health impacts on residents.

A lawsuit filed in 2020 in South Africa accuses the British-lead mining giant Anglo American of poisoning thousands of people in Kabwe.

Three UN special rapporteurs on human rights around toxics, extreme poverty and persons with disability will now be admitted to the legal proceedings.

Two UN working groups on discrimination against women and girls and business and human rights also secured a role in the case as “friends of the court”.

Two years ago a group of 13 Zambian women and children filed a suit against mining giant Anglo American alleging its lead operations in Kabwe caused widespread poisoning.

They approached a high court in South Africa -- where the company is based -- on behalf of a group estimated to comprise more than 100,000 individuals in the Kabwe district of Zambia who are believed to be victims of the poisoning.

No date has been set for the start of the hearing in which the victims are seeking compensation, blood lead screening and a cleanup of the affected area.

Kabwe mine was part of Anglo American from 1925 until 1974, the period in which experts say two-thirds of the lead currently in the local environment was likely to have been deposited there.

In operation from the early 1900s until its closure in 1994, the lead mine was once the world's largest.

Anglo American earlier this month said it has “every sympathy for the people of Kabwe, but we intend to defend ourselves against the allegations as we just don’t believe that we are responsible for the current situation”.

Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in 2019 about a public health “emergency”, claiming children living in the town are still exposed to high levels of toxicity almost 30 years after the mine had closed.