ONE third of the world’s children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which will cause lasting damage to their health and development, new research has found.
A study by UNICEF and Pure Earth, Toxic Truth, says that 800 million children around the world are being poisoned by lead on a “massive and previously unrecognised scale”.
Almost half the global total of children suffering from lead poisoning live in South Asia. Others live in Africa, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe.
India has the most children — more than 275 million — with blood-lead levels of more than five micrograms per decilitre, which, the World Health Organization says, is the cut-off level for intervention.
Exposure to lead causes irreparable harm to children’s brains and is particularly damaging to children under five, causing them lifelong damage. It has also been linked to mental-health and behavioural problems, and to an increase in crime and violence. Older children suffer severe consequences, including increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases in later life, the report says. The main sources of the poisoning are poorly recycled car batteries — which account for 85 per cent of the lead used in the world — e-waste, mining, and lead paints.
The growth in car ownership in recent decades, and lack of regulation over the recycling of lead-acid batteries in poorer and middle-income countries, means that many workers in recycling plants are exposed to the lead.
“Unregulated and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spilling acid and lead dust onto the ground, and [there is] smelt lead in open-air furnaces that spew toxic fumes and dust that contaminate surrounding neighbourhoods,” the report says.
Workers at the plants carry the particles home on their clothes to their families, unaware of the risk.
In higher-income countries, the levels of lead in children’s blood have fallen sharply in recent decades.
The report says: “Childhood lead poisoning should command an urgent international response. But because lead wreaks its havoc silently and insidiously, it often goes unrecognized. It irreversibly damages children’s developing brains and nervous systems, the heart, lungs and kidneys and often does so whilst causing no or only subtle symptoms in the early stages. Hence, the full magnitude of the scale of global lead poisoning is only recently coming to light.”
The scale of the problem is “far greater than previously understood”, one of the authors of the report, Nicholas Rees, said.
The study used data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, in the United States. It obtained results of blood tests from tens of thousands of children worldwide.