A third of children worldwide are poisoned with lead, says UNICEF report

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New Delhi (NVI): A third of global children population are affected by lead poisoning, a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreparable damage to the brain, said a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non-profit Pure Earth.

According to the report, up to 800 million children globally has lead levels in their blood equal to or greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter, (µg / dL), the level at which requires action.

The report, the first of its kind, warns that “lead poisoning is affecting children on a massive and previously unknown scale,” nearly half the affected children were from South Asia, it added.

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said, “With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences.”

“Knowing how widespread lead pollution is – and understanding the destruction it causes to individual lives and communities – must inspire urgent action to protect children once and for all,” she added.

The report titled, “The Toxic Truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential, ” has been verified with a study approved for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Notably, lead is a potent neurotoxin harmful to both adults and children, but especially those under the age of five as the brain is not yet fully developed, causing lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment, the report said.

Several studies have linked childhood lead exposure to mental health and behavioural problems, and to an increase of crime and violence, adding that for older children, it is linked to an increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases later in life, it said.

Furthermore, middle- and low-income countries were the most affected by the problem of lead exposure. The countries lost almost USD 1 trillion of economic potential because of this.

A leading contributor to lead exposure is informal and sub-standard recycling of lead-acid batteries, the report pointed out.

There was a three-fold increase in the number of vehicles in middle- and low-income countries since 2000. Up to half the lead-acid batteries used in these vehicles was recycled in the informal economy in these countries, it added.

Workers in these dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil. The lead is then smelt in open-air furnaces, producing toxic fumes, putting the larger community around the areas where these operations occur, in harm’s way.

The report also stated, water as another source of lead poisoning. Lead-based industries, including mining, paints and pigments were a major historical source, despite declining considerably in the past decades.

Meanwhile, the parents of children who work in lead-based factories also brought home contaminated dust, increasing exposure their children to the toxic element.

“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighborhoods,
said Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth adding that “lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored.”

Further, people can be educated about the dangers of lead and empowered to protect themselves and their children. “The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet,” he said.

Lead paint was yet another source of exposure, said the report, citing the lack of regulations in countries as a source of concern.

Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Kenya, the Philippines, Tanzania and Thailand have laws against lead paint for industrial uses as of 2015, as per the report.

However, the report features five country case studies where lead pollution and other toxic heavy metal waste have affected children which are Kathgora, Bangladesh; Tbilisi, Georgia; Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Pesarean, Indonesia; and Morelos State, Mexico.

-RJV