Lead Poisoning in Children
For more than a century, the people of Kabwe, Zambia have lived with devastatingly high levels of lead exposure. In 1994, after 90 years, Kabwe’s lead mine shut down. More than 25 years later, the people of Kabwe still suffer the consequences of decades of unstable mining and nearly nonexistent clean-up efforts by mine owners. Environmental health authorities say Kabwe has unprecedented levels of lead contamination leading to lead poisoning in children.

The EPA “defines a soil lead hazard as 400 parts per million (ppm) in play areas and a 1,200 ppm average for bare soil in the rest of the yard.” Black Mountain, a favorite place for Kabwe’s children to play, measures a staggering 30,000-60,000 ppm. The “mountain” is a massive heap of refuse. Adults often crawl through make-shift tunnels mining for lead, copper, manganese and zinc to sell. With more than half of Zambia’s population living below the poverty line, mineral scavenging provides vital income. Many people who venture beyond the “DANGER KEEP AWAY!” warning outside the mine site, say the risk of lead poisoning is a necessity if they want to feed their families.

Children at Risk

Lead poisoning in children is at a disproportionate rate due to children’s developing bodies and brains. Children absorb four to five times more lead than their parents. Lead exposure can result in skin rashes, poor appetite, weight loss, cough, stunted growth, learning disabilities and death. Often, lead poisoning goes undetected until it is too late. Many families will hide their lead-poisoned children because they fear stigma due to their child’s symptoms. In Zambia, 45.5% of children live in extreme poverty. As a result, they do not often have access to proper healthcare to treat lead poisoning.

The World Bank Project

The World Bank is funding a $65 million project, the Zambia Mining and Environment Remediation and Improvement Project (ZMERIP). The project aims to reduce environmental risks in lead hot spots. It also seeks to assist the Zambian government in addressing the dangers of lead exposure and implementing safety protocols, providing health intervention and engaging mining companies in expanding awareness of their environmental and social responsibilities.

In 2020, the ZMERIP began the largest health intervention to address blood lead levels (BLLs) in children in Zambia. More than 10,000 children received lead poison testing. The CDC recommends a BLL in children of no more than 5 µg/dl. Of the children tested, 2,500 had BLLs of 45 µg/dl or more. Chelation therapy, “which binds the lead into a compound that is filtered out through the kidneys”, is the preferred treatment for children who test 45 µg/dl or higher. Children who test lower, receive vitamin supplements, iron and protein as treatment.

The World Bank attempted another project similar to the ZMERIP in 2011 but achieved little progress. With lessons learned, the World Bank is hopeful this new project will be successful. If the project attains the goals it has set out to complete, more than 70,000 people including 30,000 children will benefit from the information. While some Zambians have yet to realize the risks of lead exposure, the World Bank reports mostly positive responses to their health advocacy.

The Future for Zambia

For the children of Kabwe, the ZMERIP offers hope of reducing lead poisoning in children. It offers hope that play is not a risk and a toddler’s appetite for a fistful of dirt is not a life sentence by lead poisoning. The key to the project’s success is continuing prevention practices, education, remediation and the Zambian government’s obligation to enforce safety regulations after the project’s completion expected in 2022. The ZMERIP’s commitment places focus on improving the lives and futures of Kabwe’s most vulnerable and valuable asset, its children, the country’s future.

Rachel Proctor
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Lead Poisoning in ChildrenLead is a toxicant that builds up over time in the body and is especially harmful to children. Every level of lead in the body comes with harmful effects. Lead poisoning can cause high blood pressure, developmental delays, kidney damage and in pregnant women, miscarriage and premature birth. Lead poisoning accounted for 1.06 million deaths in 2017. These risks are especially high in developing countries since they do not always have the same safeguards as developed ones.

The Risk for Children in Developing Countries

Lead poisoning affects one in three children worldwide. This amounts to 800 million children, with most of those affected living in South Asia. India is one of the worst-affected countries, with 275 million children suffering from lead poisoning. These high levels can cause developmental delays, kidney damage and cardiovascular conditions. The effect on the brain is most destructive for children under 5 because lead damages the brain before it’s fully developed. This causes lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment. These impairments can lead to reduced IQ, reduced attention span,  increased antisocial behavior and an increase in crime and violence. Lead poisoning is estimated to cost developing countries almost $1 trillion over these children’s lifetimes.

Rates of lead poisoning are higher in developing countries because environmental safeguards are often not in place or are not enforced. In these countries, lead can be found in dust and fumes from fires, car batteries, old paint, water pipes, pots and pans, cosmetics and even some medicines. In recent years, a majority of lead poisoning has come from car batteries due to an increased number of cars in developing countries. This has led to a rise in lead acid battery recycling, often in illegal and unregulated ways. These batteries account for 85% of the world’s lead and when recycled illegally, the lead is spilled into the ground or into the air through open-air furnaces.

The good news is that lead poisoning is preventable, shown by the fact that rates of lead poisoning are significantly lower in developed countries. Increasing awareness and educating developing countries on safe recycling practices can help reduce lead poisoning. Reducing lead pollution can lead to increased productivity, higher IQs and less violence in developing nations around the world.

Solutions to Lead Poisoning

The WHO has identified lead as one of 10 chemicals that are of major public health concern. As a result, it has formed the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. The goal of the Alliance is to phase out the sale and manufacture of lead paint globally by the end of 2020. WHO has also partnered with the Global Environment Facility to support 40 countries in enacting controls on lead paint. UNICEF and Pure Earth have partnered together to complete a report that covers the effect of lead poisoning on children. The goal of the report is to spread awareness and give an outline to leaders in developing countries to address the dangers of lead pollution. This outline includes:

  • Increasing the amount of blood lead level testing

  • Preventing children’s exposure to ceramics, paint, and toys that contain lead

  • Strengthening health systems to better handle lead poisoning and to provide behavioral therapy

  • Developing and enforcing health and safety standards for manufacturing and recycling lead batteries

Some countries have already taken small steps to reduce the level of lead pollution:

  • Senegal switched a polluted lead battery recycling area to hydroponic gardening

  • Vietnam moved a lead battery recycling operation from inside to outside the village of Dong Mai

  • Indonesia removed lead-laden soil from soccer fields

  • Peru has enacted new soil pollution laws

Hopefully, with the continued successful implementation of these programs, lead poisoning will no longer be a global threat to children’s health.

– Rae Brozovich
Photo: Flickr