UNITED NATIONS – A third of the world’s children are poisoned by lead, a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreparable damage to the brain, according to a report published on Wednesday by the United Nations’ Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the NGO Pure Earth.
The study warns that “lead poisoning is affecting children on a massive and previously unknown scale.”
It says that one in three children – or up to 800 million children globally – has blood lead levels equal to or greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated requires intervention, and a level at which the World Health Organization says may be associated with decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties and learning problems.
Nearly half of those children live in South Asia.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a joint statement.
“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,” she said.
The report, titled “The Toxic Truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential,” has been verified with a study approved for publication in “Environmental Health Perspectives.”
Lead is a potent neurotoxin harmful to both adults and children, but especially those under the age of five as the brain is not yet fully developed. The metal can cause lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment.
Numerous studies have linked childhood lead exposure to mental health and behavioral problems and an increase in crime and violence, the statement said, adding that for older children, it is linked to an increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases later in life.
The study points to the informal and poor recycling of regular lead-acid batteries, such as those in vehicles, as one of the main factors contributing to the poisoning of children living in low- and middle-income countries, where the number of vehicles has tripled in the last 20 years.
This increase, together with the lack of regulation and infrastructure for vehicle battery recycling, means that up to 50 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled unsafely in the informal economy, UNICEF and Pure Earth said.
“Workers in dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil, and smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces that emit toxic fumes poisoning the surrounding community. Often, the workers and the exposed community are not aware that lead is a potent neurotoxin,” the statement said.
Other sources of poisoning include water from the use of leaded pipes, mining, paint and pigments, gasoline, solder in food cans, and lead in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products.
In most high-income countries, blood lead levels have been reduced significantly since the phase-out of leaded gasoline and paints, but levels for children in low- and middle-income countries have “remained elevated and, in many cases, dangerously high.”
The report presents case studies on the situation in regions of five countries where lead pollution and other toxic heavy metal waste have affected children – Kathgora, Bangladesh; Tbilisi, Georgia; Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Pesarean, Indonesia; and Morelos State, Mexico.
UNICEF and New York-based NGO Pure Earth called on governments to address lead exposure with legislation and policy, improvements in prevention and control measures, reporting and monitoring systems including testing, and a reinforcement of the treatment of affected minors and more public awareness.
“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighborhoods. Lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored,” said Pure Earth president Richard Fuller in the statement.
“People can be educated about the dangers of lead and empowered to protect themselves and their children. The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet.”