India bears world’s highest health, economic burden due to lead poisoning: Centre

Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh have highest average blood lead levels, a CSIR and Niti Aayog report has shown

By Taran Deol
Published: Wednesday 12 October 2022
Photo: iStock

A 2020 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and non-profit Pure Earth had found India to be home to a major chunk of the 800 million children poisoned by lead globally. Now, a central report has found that India bears the world’s highest health and economic burden due to lead poisoning.

The report, prepared jointly by government think tank Niti Aayog and the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), was published in July this year. A meeting was organised by Pure Earth and The Energy and Resource Institute in the national capital October 11, 2022 to discuss the findings of the report.

Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh had the highest average blood lead levels (BLL) among Indian states, according to the report. These states account for 40 per cent of India’s population that is plagued with this poor health indicator.

Some 23 states have an average BLL that goes beyond five microgram per decilitre (μg / dl) — the standard used to gauge poisoning. The statistics are worrying on a national level with the average for the country being 4.9 μg / dl for children less than two years old.

India accounted for 275,561,163 of the 800 million children suffering from lead poisoning globally according to the 2020 Unicef report. This number meant that half of India’s children were poisoned by lead.

The Unicef report also noted that lead poisoning shaved off an estimated five per cent of Indian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to lower economic productivity and reduced lifetime earnings. It also caused 230,000 premature deaths in India.

CSIR and Niti Ayog assessed 89 data sets from 36 studies carried out between 1970 and 2014 to corroborate the findings of the Unicef report.

Deaths due to lead poisoning have continued to rise in India even though lead use in petrol — a key source — was phased out by 2000 in the country. This indicates other sources.

The government report includes battery recycling, occupational sources such as lead mining, smelting, welding, soldering and automobile repatriating. Other inconspicuous sources include adulterated spices, cosmetics and traditional medicines.

“There is a desperate need for policy changes at the national and state levels given the severe health implications including, but not limited to, the central nervous, hematopoietic, hepatic and renal systems. But there seems to be little interest here,” Rajiv Kumar, former vice chairperson of the Niti Aayog, said.

“While the statistics clearly show we’re in trouble, not much has moved in terms of policy making,” he said of his time at the Niti Aayog till April this year.

“What’s certain is the need for a state-level approach to this problem. We need to devise implementable strategies on a state level, through regional bureaucracy, local press and vernacular language to have a tangible impact,” he added.

The CSIR and Niti Aayog report details the way forward to reduce negative impacts of lead poisoning. It lists national and state-level steps.

These include identifying at-risk populations through BLL monitoring, investigating sources of elevated BLLs and healthcare workforce training to sensitise them to monitor, detect and treat lead poisoning.

A fourth step is to undertake targeted research and intervention studies to identify potential newer sources which policy makers and the scientific community can address head on. 

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