About 800mn children, mostly in developing countries, ‘will have had risky exposure’ to lead, which is likely to cause significant long-term health damage, new research has found.
The report, the first of its kind, prepared by Unicef in association with Pure Earth says that around one in three children have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre, the level at which requires action. Nearly half of these children live in South Asia.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said Henrietta Fore, Unicef executive director.
“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.”
The report is an analysis of childhood lead exposure undertaken by the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation (IHME) and verified with a study approved for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives.
It notes that lead is a potent neurotoxin which causes irreparable harm to children’s brains. It is particularly destructive to babies and children under the age of five as it damages their brains before they have had the opportunity to fully develop, causing them lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment.
Childhood lead exposure has also been linked to mental health and behavioural problems, and to an increase of crime and violence. Older children suffer severe consequences including increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases in later life, the report says.
Childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost $1tn due to lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.
The report notes that informal and substandard recycling of lead-acid batteries is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries, which have experienced a three-fold increase in the number of vehicles since 2000.
The increase in vehicle ownership, combined with the lack of vehicle battery recycling regulation and infrastructure, has resulted in up to 50% of lead-acid batteries being unsafely recycled in the informal economy.
Workers in dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil, and smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces that emit toxic fumes poisoning the surrounding community. Often, the workers and the exposed community are not aware that lead is a potent neurotoxin.
Other sources of childhood lead exposure include lead in water from the use of leaded pipes; lead from active industry, such as mining and battery recycling; lead-based paint and pigments; leaded gasoline, which has declined considerably in recent decades, but was a major historical source; lead solder in food cans; and lead in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products.
Parents whose occupations involve working with lead often bring contaminated dust home on their clothes, hair, hands and shoes, thus inadvertently exposing their children to the toxic element.
The report also noted that governments in affected countries can address lead pollution and exposure among children using a co-ordinated and concerted approach.
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