The recent recall in the United States of toys made in China containing lead paint calls attention to the greater danger of children's exposure to lead in their everyday lives. While many countries ban lead as an ingredient, children growing up in poverty are still exposed to it everyday. VOA's Melinda Smith looks at the hazards of living with lead.
Imagine a map of the world, and think of places where children live in poverty. It is possible that many of those children are exposed to lead.
How do we recognize it? Doctors say you will not -- until the level of lead is so high the child is physically ill.
One nine-year-old boy living in a village close to a lead factory in the Gansu province of China describes how he felt. "I always feel dizzy. I feel the pain in my legs after a short walk. Sometimes I cannot remember the assignment given by the teacher. I often vomit, too."
Zhou Wen-yuan's blood lead levels were reportedly five times greater than normal. Other children in the village also had high amounts of lead from their exposure and were hospitalized after tests confirmed the metal's presence.
"Most children around the world who have elevated blood levels today have no symptoms whatsoever, and there's no way to know they have elevated blood lead levels except through a blood test," says Dr. Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician and an expert on the environmental health of children. He says the absorption of lead is far more dangerous in children than in adults. "They have a smaller body over which to spread the amount that they have absorbed. The other thing is, that children's brains are developing and therefore are more susceptible to damage during that time of development."
Lead can be found, even in developed countries. In the United States, lead paint is still found in old houses. The lead oxide in paint chips tastes sweet to a child, especially at that age when everything goes in the mouth. Paint dust can also be inhaled.
So can the fumes from leaded gasoline. Most countries ban or restrict the amount of lead in fuel. But vehicles in at least one third of the world still run on leaded gas. Children living near a highway are the most vulnerable, says Dr. Paulson. "When the lead is in the gasoline, it comes out of the tailpipes and so it's sprayed in the air and goes literally everywhere that the air goes. It's on the food, plants in the fields; it's on the floors of the houses. It's on the beds. It's everywhere."
Dr. Paulson says the solution is simple. "Lead poisoning should not exist, and the solution is to get the lead out of gasoline and make sure that homes in which children are going to live are safe. And we can bring an end to this problem. We have not had the political will to do that."