A third of world’s children are poisoned by lead, says UNICEF report

India accounts for 275,561,163 of these children; lead levels in blood of Indian children show they can lose four intelligence quotient points due to lead exposure

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 30 July 2020
The report said lead levels in the blood of the affected children were at or above five micrograms per deciliter. Photo: Needpix

A third of the world’s children — around 800 million — are affected by lead poisoning, with India accounting for 275,561,163 of these cases, said a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non-profit Pure Earth July 30, 2020. Nearly half the affected children were from South Asia.

The report, the first of its kind, said lead levels in the blood of the affected children were at or above five micrograms per decilitre (µg / dL).

Lead exposure during childhood is linked to several issues, including mental health and behavioural problems, including an increase in crime and violence.

Brains of babies and children can be irreparably harmed by lead, a potent neurotoxin, before they are allowed a chance to develop. This can lead to lifelong cognitive, neurological and physical impairment.

Children with blood levels of five µg / dL were found to score three to five points lower on intelligence tests, compared to their counterparts who did not have such elevated levels.

A meta-analysis of lead levels in the blood of Indian children showed they could lose four intelligence quotient points each because of lead exposure, said the report. Kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases was also prevalent among older children exposed to lead, according to the report.

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

Middle- and low-income countries were the most affected by the problem of lead exposure. The countries lost almost $1 trillion of economic potential because of this, according to the report.

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, the report said.

Workers in these 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 cited 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, according to the report.

The parents of children who work in lead-based factories also brought home contaminated dust, increasing exposure to children in such households.

The report also listed folk remedies and cosmetics used by households that contained lead. Ghasard, an Indian folk medicine in the form of a brown powder used as a tonic, contained lead.

Sindoor (vermillion), a traditional cosmetic powder used by women in the Indian subcontinent, also has traces of lead.

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, according to the report.

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