The World Health Organization says lead poisoning has devastating health consequences, especially for children. The WHO is raising awareness about the problem during International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. The theme is Lead-Free Kids for a Healthy Future.
It’s estimated that 143,000 people die every year from lead poisoning. Lead exposure also contributes to 600,000 new cases annually of children with intellectual disabilities. Much of the problem is blamed on lead paint.
Carolyn Vickers is Team Leader for Chemical Safety in the WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Lead poisoning is considered by WHO to be one of the top 10 chemical exposures of major public health concern. And it’s particularly worrying because it affects children and a developing fetus. It also affects adults through occupational exposure with the high burden in developing countries.”
But it’s not just in developing countries.
L”ead exposure is a big problem in most if not all countries. In some countries lead paint is still used. That’s obviously adding every year to the number of houses, schools and buildings that are treated with lead paint. But also even in developed countries lead paint has been applied for many decades and when people undertake activities, such as renovating their home, it causes the lead to form dust, which children can become exposed to. So it is actually a problem in most countries,” she said.
She said lead dust particles can be so fine that people don’t even know they’re being exposed. In children, lead can damage the developing nervous system, including the brain. IQ can be affected. High lead exposure can cause irreversible damage.
“Here we’re talking about different kinds of lead exposure. Before, I was talking about lead paint. But children can also be exposed to lead through activities, such as hazardous work. If children are involved in recycling of batteries or are playing with batteries where recycled. Also children can be exposed to lead if they’re engaged in hazardous mining activities in developing countries. And here we see various serious cases of lead poisoning,” said Vickers.
For adults, heavy exposure can come from working in battery recycling, smelting or painting. It can affect adults’ kidneys and blood pressure.
One of the major ways many countries have reduced lead in the environment is to ban its use in gasoline.
“As a result of that action there has been a decrease worldwide in exposure to lead. That’s a very encouraging sign and it’s proving that action leads to good outcomes -- and that the next step is to tackle lead paint, which we believe, is very achievable,” she said.
Lead may be found in paint pigment.
She said, “There are some global suppliers of pigment. So it’s feasible to tackle a large amount of it by encouraging or requiring manufacturers that ship their pigment products to stop doing that and to only use non-lead versions. Then the next step is to educate paint formulators about the hazards of lead paint -- to encourage them to look for the non-lead alternative. And to encourage governments to pass regulation, legislation or other relevant controls to prohibit lead decorative paints.”
Thirty countries have phased out lead paint. The WHO, U.N. Environment Fund and the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint have set a target of 70 countries by 2015.