LEAD IN THE BLOOD | A Poison that Prevails a Lifetime

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According to the latest report by UNICEF and Pure Earth, a third of the world’s children are poisoned by lead. The report also states, with over 35.53 million children exposed, Bangladesh is the fourth most-seriously hit in terms of the number of children affected.

The Silent Killer

Lead is a sneaky little element. It’s malleable and durable, so it’s no wonder that for years we used it in piping and added it to paint. But it’s also extremely poisonous and can create problems all over the body ranging from rashes to anaemia. It is invisible and odourless, which makes it more hazardous. There’s no way to know if a human body is inhaling it. People may also ingest it from dust, water delivered through lead-contaminated pipes, or through food cooked or stored on lead-containing surfaces. Its effects take time to accumulate. By the time symptoms are developed that prompt testing, the human body has likely already amassed dangerous levels of lead in your bones and teeth, where lead is stored. It is especially harmful to the young because their systems absorb more lead than an adult’s body would, allowing formative damage to their brains and nervous systems, producing learning differences, emotional challenges, and compromised motor skills. Children can inherit lead poisoning directly from their mothers. Women who end up ingesting lead can store it in their bones. Afterwards, if they get pregnant, that lead can be passed on and damage the brains of their children. 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 Toxic Truth

The major contributing factor towards lead poisoning among children in Bangladesh is the informal and substandard recycling of lead-acid batteries. The recycling usually takes place in open air to make matters worse, even dangerously close to the homestead. Workers tend to break open battery cases, causing the acid to spill lead dust in the soil, smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces resulting in the emission of toxic fumes, thus unknowingly poisoning the neighbouring community. Lead, more precisely lead chromate, have been found in high concentrations in spices in addition to cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products. Turmeric, being enhanced through the use of lead chromate, which has fatal long-term health effects among adults and children alike. Coming back to unlawful recycling of lead-acid batteries, Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation, in their investigation, has discovered that lead exposure in Bangladesh has reached such a magnitude that it now possesses the fourth-highest death-rate globally, with an average population having a blood lead level of 6.83 µg/dL, making it the 11th highest on a global scale. Other sources of childhood lead exposure include the lead in water from the use of leaded pipes; active industry, such as mining and battery recycling. Exposure has also been recorded from lead-based paint and pigments; leaded gasoline, lead solder in food cans, 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.

Substantial Economic Impacts

The report estimates that the economic loss due to lead-attributable IQ reduction in Bangladesh is equivalent to 5.9 per cent of the GDP. Lead poisoning hampers children’s ability to fully develop and prevents them from taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities in life. The economic cost of childhood lead exposure is $977 billion in low- and middle-income countries. However, the loss accounts for $55 billion in the European Union and $50.9 billion in the United States. Childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost USD 1 trillion due to the lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.

A Holistic Approach

We must be fully able to grasp how unprecedented the adverse effects of lead exposure are, especially on children, who we are hoping to see as the ‘torch-bearers’ of tomorrow. Getting exposed to lead poisoning through lead contamination in water from the use of leaded pipes, lead from active industries like mining and battery recycling, lead-based paint and pigments and leaded gasoline.

The report urged the governments in affected countries to address lead pollution and exposure among children using a coordinated and concerted approach. It starts with establishing proper monitoring and reporting systems which includes capacity building for blood lead level testing. The government must prevent lead exposure in children by implementing strict safety standard for specific products; failure to comply must have legal implications. Our healthcare system needs to be strengthened so that they are equipped to detect, monitor and treat lead exposure among children; and provide children with enhanced educational interventions and cognitive behavioural therapy to better manage the adverse effects of lead exposure. There needs to a strong push towards creating public awareness and advocating behavioural change by creating continual public education campaigns about the dangers and sources of lead exposure with direct appeals to parents, schools, community leaders and healthcare workers. The efforts must be backed by proper legislation and policy including developing, implementing and enforcing environmental, health and safety standards for manufacturing and recycling of lead-acid batteries and e-waste, and enforcing environmental and air-quality regulations for smelting operations. Most importantly, there should be a global consensus in addressing the issue and mitigating the impacts. it can be facilitated by global and regional activities setting global standard units of measure to verify the results of pollution intervention on public health, the environment and local economies; building an international registry of anonymized results of blood lead level studies, and creating international standards and norms around recycling and transportation of used lead-acid batteries.

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