For many people, child lead poisoning can feel similar to a thing of the past, as developed countries have access to resources and information to prevent it. However, lead poisoning is still an all-too-real health concern to millions of people globally.
What is the Situation Surrounding Child Lead Poisoning?
Around the world, more than 800 million children have blood lead concentrations greater than five micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). To be clear, it is dangerous to have any amount of lead in the bloodstream and five μg/dL is the CDC-established level at which medical intervention is needed. India has one of the highest rates of child lead poisoning, with around 275 million children having a blood lead level (BLL) of more than five μg/dL.
Child lead poisoning in India has many causes, as children can absorb lead almost anywhere in the environment. One can breathe it in, ingest it or absorb it through touch. Water undergoes contamination when it runs through lead pipes. Lead-containing spices and packaging contaminate food. Additionally, toys, paint and traditional Indian cosmetics and medicines can contain lead. Children also undergo exposure when around industries that deal with lead, such as battery recycling plants or mines. Impoverished areas suffer the most from lead poisoning, due to lower levels of awareness, access to medical care and higher amounts of lead in the community infrastructure.
Children’s Exposure to Lead
With so many methods of exposure, it is no wonder that so many Indian children suffer from lead poisoning with consequences that are dire. According to India’s National Health Portal, “Lead is a cumulative toxicant (increasing in quantity in the body over many years) that affects multiple body systems (neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal systems).”
Furthermore, lead poisoning is detrimental to mental health and causes disability. There is a relationship between childhood exposure and increased violence, aggression and criminal behavior. Annually, more than 500,000 new intellectual disability cases can be directly traced to lead poisoning. Data from UNICEF has shown that, on average, Indian children lose four IQ points as a direct result of lead exposure. UNICEF has stated that “A loss of five points across an entire population could result in a 57% increase in the proportion of the population determined to have intellectual disabilities…This has tremendous implications for both the capacity of society to provide remedial or special education programmes, as well as for their future leadership.”
For this issue, preventative measures are the best solution. Pure Earth is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses entirely on lead and mercury poisoning in low- and middle-income nations. The NGO is the largest organization dealing with international childhood lead poisoning and it solves lead poisoning one project at a time using a “5-Phase Solution.” The five phases include blood testing, source analyses, source-specific interventions, ongoing monitoring of BLLs and public education.
Each Pure Earth project is highly specific to the location it targets. First, the Pure Earth team will gather BLLs in the area, then the Pure Earth team will identify the most probable exposure sources. Once they have determined where the lead is coming from, they will design an intervention that eliminates the lead source. Finally, Pure Earth will continue to monitor BLLs and educate the citizens of the area about lead poisoning and how to avoid it.
One such project that Pure Earth has completed worked with lead poisoning in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, an Indian community in close proximity to a formal lead smelter. When an assessment found large amounts of lead in the yard of the local school and daycare, Pure Earth designed solutions to protect the residents. The solutions involved intensive cleaning, paving of dangerous outdoor areas, installing a drainage system to divert the runoff from the smelter and implementing a citizen education program.
The Toxic Sites Identification Program
Pure Earth works all over the world, but it has completed several projects in India. Additionally, it is currently operating a Toxic Sites Identification Program, which has identified more than 700 attention-needing locations in India since 2015.
Child lead poisoning can seem overwhelming. There are countless methods of exposure, and it causes sombering irreversible damage. Pure Earth has proved that change can happen by addressing the issue one step at a time.
– Mia Sharpe