One-third of the world children suffer from lead poisoning, a new report has found, with the vast majority living in developing countries where the health issue has widely been ignored.
According to research by United Nations agency UNICEF and environmental group Pure Earth, more than 800 million children around the world have elevated lead levels in their blood, impairing their cognitive development.In Bangladesh, it is estimated that 35.5 million children are affected by blood lead levels above 5μg/dL, making the country the fourth most-seriously hit in the world.
The study shows the children had lead levels of 5 micrograms per decilitre or higher in their bloodstream, which are considered high enough to impair the development of brains, nervous systems and vital organs such as heart and lungs.
“Lead exposure has severe and long-lasting health and development effects on children, including lifelong learning disabilities and their capacity to earn an income when they grow up. The UNICEF will be working with the actors concerned to help address dangerous metal waste and lead pollution and the toll it takes on children,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.
Childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost $1 trillion due to the lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.
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.
In Bangladesh, illegal recycling of used lead-acid batteries in the open-air and close to homestead areas is considered to be a major source of lead exposure.This poses a significant health risk for both children and adults.
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 blood lead level of 6.83μg/dL, which is the eleventh highest in the world.
The research also found that high concentrations of lead were found in spices in Bangladesh. Lead chromate, which is used to enhance colour and weight of turmeric as a sign of quality, contributes to the elevated lead blood levels in children and adults alike. According to one study, some concentrations exceeded the national limit by up to 500 times.
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 hampers children’s ability to fully develop and prevents them from taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities in life.
The biggest source of lead contamination by far, however, is used lead-acid batteries. “About 85 per cent of all lead used in the world today” goes to making these, said Nicholas Rees, one of the report’s authors. “The number of vehicles in low-income countries has essentially tripled since the start of the century,” he explained, especially in rapidly industrialising countries.
In Bangladesh, for example, there were 60 million vehicles in 2014, says Maya Vandement, Unicef Chief of Health in the country. Just five years later, this ballooned to 504 million.
Lead-acid batteries are also used for electric vehicles. Hailed for being environmentally friendly, their growing use has a hidden trade-off.
The scale of the problem is “far greater than previously understood”, said Nicholas Rees. Lead has been known as a toxic substance for centuries, he explained, but while rich countries have taken steps to dramatically reduce lead exposure – by banning lead paint for example – in low- and middle-income countries the issue has been widely ignored.
Today, more than 90 percent of the disease burden from lead exposure occurs in these countries, the report finds.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“Knowing how widespread lead pollution is – and understanding the destruction it causes to individual lives and communities – must inspire urgent action to protect children once and for all.”