Approximately 1 in 3 children globally have lead levels in their blood exceeding the “safe level” of 5 micrograms per decilitre, according to a new report launched 30 July by UNICEF and Pure Earth. Of the approximately 800 million affected children, nearly half live in South Asia.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “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.”
The report, the first of its kind, identifies that lead is a neurotoxin that causes irreparable harm to children’s brains, mostly particularly those under the age of five, leaving them with lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment. Lead exposure is also linked to mental health and behavioural issues, crime and violence. It also leads to an increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases, in later life.
Importantly, the report suggests that informal and substandard recycling of lead-acid (mostly vehicle) batteries is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries, where there is an estimated three-fold increase in the number of vehicles since 2000. This increase, combined with the lack of vehicle battery recycling regulation and infrastructure, has resulted in up to 50 per cent of lead-acid batteries being unsafely recycled in the informal economy. Lead recovered from batteries is smelted in open-air furnaces that emit fumes and poison the surrounding communities.
Lead is also evident in water from the use of leaded pipes, from mining industries, and in trace elements in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products.
“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 Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth. “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.”
The report notes that governments in affected countries can address lead pollution and exposure among children using a coordinated and concerted approach across six critical areas. In particular, the report calls for better monitoring and reporting systems, public awareness campaigns, development, implementation, and enforcement of legislation and health and safety standards.