Toxic Truth of Lead Poisoning

"Lead exposure has severe and long-lasting health and development impacts on children, including lifelong learning disabilities and their capacity to earn income when they grow up. Lead is a highly toxic metal and a very well-built poison. Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body.  Lead is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the walls of old houses and toys. It is also found in: art supplies; contaminated dust and gasoline products.

According to the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation, Bangladesh has the world's fourth-highest rate of death due to lead exposure with an average population of blood lead levels at 6.83 μg/dL, which is the eleventh highest in the world. Lead chromate, which is used to enhance color and weight of turmeric as a sign of quality, contributes to the elevated lead blood levels in children and adults alike. The report estimates that the economic loss due to lead-attributable IQ reduction in Bangladesh is equivalent to 5.9 per cent of the country's GDP. Lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of months or years. It causes severe mental and physical impairment. Young children are most vulnerable. Children get lead in their bodies by putting the lead-containing objects in their mouths. Touching the lead and then putting their fingers in their mouths may also poison them. Lead is more harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing.

According to the global report, around 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million globally – have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), a level which requires action. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that 35.5 million children are affected with blood lead levels above 5 μg/dL, making the country the fourth most-seriously hit in the world. The report--The Toxic Truth: Children's exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential--is an analysis of childhood lead exposure undertaken by the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation and verified with a study approved for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The global lead poisoning 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 potent neurotoxin. Symptoms of lead poisoning are varied. They may affect many parts of the body. Most of the time, lead poisoning builds up slowly. It follows repeated exposures to small quantities of lead. Signs of repeated lead exposure include: abdominal pain; abdominal cramps; aggressive behavior; constipation; sleep problems; headaches; irritability; loss of developmental skills in children; loss of appetite; fatigue; high blood pressure; numbness or tingling in the extremities; memory loss; anemia and kidney dysfunction. As child’s brain is developing, lead can create intellectual disability. Symptoms may include: behavior problems; low IQ; poor grades at school; problems with hearing; short- and long-term learning difficulties and growth delays. A high, toxic dose of lead poisoning may result in emergency symptoms. These include severe abdominal pain and cramping; vomiting; muscle weakness; stumbling when walking; seizures; coma and encephalopathy.

Common sources of lead include: house paint; toys and household items; bullets, curtain weights, and fishing sinkers made of lead; pipes and sink faucets; soil polluted by car exhaust or chipping house paint; paint sets and art supplies; jewelry, pottery; storage batteries and some traditional ethnic medicines.

Meanwhile, Environmental and social development organization denotes on paints sold in Dhaka and Chittagong in 2013 and 2015, discovered lead concentrations in yellow paints averaging about 40,000 ppm, hundreds of times higher than the new 90 ppm standard. In 2013, ESDO found no paints that fell below the 90 ppm standard.  In 2015, nine paint samples (out of 49 tested) were below 90 ppm, but 17 samples were above 10,000 ppm. Bangladesh has recently enacted a law limiting 90 parts-per-million (ppm) of lead in decorative paints. At least 73 countries currently have similar statutory limits on the production, import, or sale of paints with lead.

Simple steps can help us prevent lead poisoning. These include: Keep our home free from dust; Use only cold water to prepare foods and drinks; Make sure everyone washes their hands before eating; Test our water for lead. If lead levels are high, use a filtering device or drink bottled water; clean faucets and aerators regularly; Wash children’s toys and bottles regularly; Teach our children to wash their hands after playing; Make sure any contractor doing work in our house is certified in lead control and Use lead-free paint in home.

The Writer is an Environmental Analyst & Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

  • Lead Poisoning
  • Toxic Truth

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