Lead Paint RegulationsOn October 6, 2020, the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) publicly announced its launch online. The startup, which was incubated through Charity Entrepreneurship and identifies as an effective altruist organization, aims to address the absence of potentially high-impact lead paint regulations in countries of low and moderate wealth.

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning poses a serious public health hazard to a number of populations around the world, disproportionately impacting children raised in low and middle-income countries. As a toxicant that accumulates over time, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, human bodies distribute lead to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. Because lead is toxic in any quantity, its ingestion can simultaneously damage multiple systems in a person’s body.

“Lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death,” according to the WHO. “Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioral disorders… Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs.” All effects of lead poisoning are considered irreversible.

Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP)

As an organization affiliated with the utilitarian “effective altruism” movement, which seeks to maximize the direct impact of modern philanthropy, LEEP describes lead paint regulation as a high-priority issue that addresses “substantial health and economic costs.” Around one in three children globally, almost 800 million, have blood lead levels high enough to cause permanent neurodevelopmental damage, according to a report that UNICEF published on July 30, 2020. Lead poisoning is responsible for one million deaths and 22 million years of healthy life lost each year.

Lead Poisoning and Poverty

LEEP and other sources also link lead poisoning to cyclical poverty. By increasing the rates of mental disability, lead exposure reduces lifetime earning capacity and heightens the prevalence of violent crime, primarily among individuals living in low-income areas. Because mental illness can exacerbate poverty, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study credits lead poisoning with reducing global GDP by $1.2 trillion each year.

Lead poisoning is considered a neglected issue in effective altruism circles. The only method of avoidance is prevention, yet common sources of lead poisoning like consuming water contaminated by lead pipes and inhaling lead particles generated by burning leaded materials or stripping leaded paint, have still not been regulated against in many areas of the world.

Advocating for Lead Paint Regulation in Developing Countries

To address these risks, LEEP’s primary mission is to advocate for lead paint regulations in countries where lead poisoning imposes large and growing public health burdens. Among the variety of common lead sources, it focuses on lead paint because it “may be the most tractable source of exposure to address and the easiest to regulate.” Among other considerations, eliminating lead paint is a non-partisan issue that is economically feasible for manufacturers and lacks a significant opposition lobby in almost all countries.

Beginning in Malawi, LEEP plans to launch advocacy initiatives in countries where lead paint regulations have the highest potential for impact. Immediate work will consist of testing lead levels in new paints on the market and building political connections in Malawi, with the hope of encouraging anti-lead legislation in the future. LEEP’s broader plan considers similar initiatives in Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Guatemala.

As of May 2020, the WHO reports that 39% of countries have regulations in place controlling the production, import, sale and use of lead paints. Africa, South Asia, South America and the Middle East are all regions where a significant proportion of countries do not have such regulations.

The Future of LEEP

LEEP was co-launched by duo Jack Rafferty, founder and director of the Refugee and Policy Institute, and Lucia Coulter, a medical doctor from the University of Cambridge with clinical and research experience. Charity Entrepreneurship provided LEEP with a $60,000 seed grant to jump-start the organization’s work. LEEP is currently seeking donors, in-country staff members and advisors with connections in target countries to reduce the effects of lead poisoning globally.

– Skye Jacobs
Photo: Flickr

lead poisoning
Kenya has had quite the year. From a recent plane crash to a raid by al-Shaabab earlier in June, the citizens are looking for some good news. Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch cannot offer such consolation, but their news does show Kenyans that someone is on their side.

A low-income area outside of Mombasa is facing a serious health threat: lead poisoning originating from the toxic waste of a nearby battery recycling plant. The Human Rights Watch has released a film entitled “Kenya: Factory Poisons Community,” which details the resulting health and environmental damage and calls for change.

The plant in question opened in the Owino Uhuru district in 2007. The plant has been in operation almost continuously for seven years. There are no precautions to protect the surrounding local community from contamination, and as a result, the waste that leaks out of the plant has infected the water sources. In addition, workers inside the lead smelter receive no protection and are often left to handle the toxic batteries with bare hands. The result? Massive exposure in the workers and community at large to seriously dangerous toxic lead.

Toxic poisoning is no light matter. It affects some 125 million people worldwide each year, usually in the form of waste from various industries. According to the WHO, high levels of lead exposure can cause damage in vital organs including the brain, liver and kidneys, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities for the next generation.

So far, three workers in the plant in Owino Uhura have died due to exposure to unhealthy amounts of lead, and the community of 3,000 is also showing signs of ill health. Blood tests performed on children back in 2009 showed unsafe and unusually high levels of lead in the blood, and children often suffer from fainting spells, seizures and intense chronic pain.

Little has been done to stop this tragedy. The plant was briefly shut down in 2009, but allowed to reopen shortly after, despite the health and environmental report that showed significant risk to the local community. However, since the smelter project was intended to stimulate foreign investment, officials are reluctant to end it completely.

That being said, some progress has been made, and the smelter was successfully moved from Owino Uhura earlier this year. However, this does little to alleviate the damage it has already caused and will only serve to infect another community with the same levels of lead poisoning. No citizens of the Owino Uhura district have received medical treatment or further testing. Compensation has not been given to the workers or patients either.

Phyllis Omido is a local within the community and a former employee of the smelter. When her son fell ill in 2009, she began a campaign to rally her fellow citizens and call for government action. Phyllis has organized letter drives and peaceful rallies. Although she has been arrested for her efforts, she does not plan to stop until the government helps her community. “We want them to clean up and to help remove the lead from the blood of our children,” says Phyllis.

The Human Rights Watch blames government inaction for the tragedy, but it is not the laws that are the problem. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act was ratified in 1999 and states that it is illegal for industry to release toxic substances into the air or water. Kenyan law also requires an environmental impact assessment before plants like the Owino Uhura smelter can open, but the plant in question did not go through the process. In short, the laws are in place, but are rarely followed.

Kenya is also a member of several esteemed communities that advocate for human rights and the environment. These range from the African Commission on the Human and People’s Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Children and the International Labor Organization. Kenya’s association with such groups means that it is obligated to take care of its people.

However, even though these laws are on the books and Kenya attends conferences on human rights, this obligation is often ignored. This illuminates not a flaw in the country’s laws, but in its government. The Human Rights Watch holds the Kenyan government accountable for the health tragedy in Owino Uhura and calls on it to remedy its toxic lead problem. Jane Cohen of the Human Rights Watch says, “This is an urgent and on-going crisis that needs immediate government action.”

So far, the Kenyan government has not released a statement, but is in attendance at the 2014 Environmental Assembly meeting, which has toxic poisoning on the agenda.

How Kenya will react to this recent call for action remains to be seen, but the seriousness of the situation is clear. Kenyan citizens are being put at risk by their government’s failure to abide by its own laws and protect its people. It is time for the Kenyan government to be held accountable for the health issues of its people caused by its industry.

— Caitlin Thompson

Sources: Huffington Post, Human Rights Watch, NCBI, Think Progress, RTT News, International News
Photo: Human Rights Watch