Lead poisoning affects hundreds of millions of children

English Section / 24 octombrie 2023

Lead poisoning affects hundreds of millions of children

Versiunea în limba română

Pollution seriously impacts human health. New information is emerging about how people are poisoned by pollutants in the air and heavy metals in paints, packaging, and food. The global health crisis caused by lead poisoning is "neglected," especially in low-income countries, and it kills three times as many people as lung cancer. Health experts warn that urgent measures are needed to address the "extreme damage" caused by lead poisoning, especially in low-income countries where more than half of children are exposed to dangerous levels of pollutants. A year-long project conducted by the Center for Global Development (CGD), based in Washington, has concluded that lead poisoning is a global health crisis that is "extraordinarily neglected" by political leaders. It is estimated that 815 million children, one in three globally, suffer from lead poisoning, a condition linked to heart and kidney disorders, intelligence impairments, violent behavior, and premature death. Recently, an article published in the October issue of the Lancet Planetary Health estimated that in 2019, 5.5 million people died from cardiovascular diseases caused by lead poisoning, about three times more than those killed by lung cancer. The World Bank calculates that the cost of premature deaths is equivalent to 4.6 billion dollars, or 5.3% of global GDP.

The effects of lead poisoning also pose a significant barrier to achieving nearly all of the United Nations' sustainable development goals, according to the report. Children are the most vulnerable to this condition because they are more likely to put lead-containing objects in their mouths (e.g., toys covered in lead paint), and because their bones and organs absorb more of the metal once ingested, as reported by The Guardian.

Furthermore, lead, being a neurotoxin, can more easily cross the blood-brain barrier at younger ages, where it can severely affect mental development. In July, a working paper published by CGD aggregated 47 studies to show that the more children are exposed to lead, the lower their scores on math, reading, and IQ tests. CGD found that about a fifth of the total difference in test scores between children in wealthy and poor countries can be attributed to differences in lead exposure. Stringent laws and billions of dollars invested in addressing the causes of poisoning prevent most children in wealthy countries from coming into contact with significant amounts of lead. This is not the case in poorer countries, where the metal continues to be used in commercial products, such as paints (which can peel and create dust that people breathe), traditional medicines and spices, as well as lead enamel cookware, which can leach into food. The failure to create buffer zones between mining facilities and residential areas also contributes to soil and air contamination in poor countries, as does the absence of well-enforced safety and environmental standards for lead-acid battery recyclers. As a result, it is estimated that over half of children in low-income countries are lead-poisoned, while in wealthy countries, this figure is only 3%. According to CGD, it is estimated that specific aid of $350 million over the period 2024-2030 would be sufficient to reduce lead exposure in low-income countries, provided there is sufficient commitment from political leaders. Funding requirements include donations for lead testing equipment, support for advocacy and awareness campaigns, and technical assistance for the development and implementation of regulations. However, CGD has identified that annual philanthropic funding for lead prevention and reduction in low- and middle-income countries amounts to only $11 million.

In the short term, reducing contamination, such as by removing products from the market, can have a significant impact. A study conducted in Bangladesh in 2019 found that turmeric was often adulterated with lead to make it brighter, and this was the main source of lead exposure in the tested areas. In response, external donors helped sponsor an initiative with the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority and experts to educate the public about the dangers of lead. By 2021, one year after the initiative, this quantity had dropped to zero. The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently preparing recommendations for lead exposure prevention, which will provide evidence-based guidance to policymakers, public health authorities, and healthcare professionals on measures they can take to protect the health of children and adults from lead exposure.