Lead poisoning has devastating health consequences, in particular for children, with childhood lead exposure estimated to contribute to 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year.
Overall, 99% of children affected by high exposure to lead live in low- and middle-income countries, says the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the occasion of International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action, which called on countries to strengthen national actions to eliminate lead paint.
Lead paint is a major source of potential lead poisoning for young children. It may be found in the home, on toys, furniture and on other objects. Decaying lead paint on walls, furniture and other interior surfaces creates lead-contaminated dust in the home that young children easily ingest. Putting lead-painted toys and other objects into the mouth also exposes young children to lead. The sweet taste of lead paint means that some children even pick off and swallow small chips of paint.
Lead poisoning remains one of the most important environmental health concerns for children globally, and lead paint is a major flashpoint for children's potential lead poisoning, says Maria Neira, WHO director for public health and environment. The good news is that exposure to lead paint can be entirely stopped through a range of measures to restrict its production and use.
It is estimated that 143,000 deaths per year result from lead poisoning and lead paint is a major contributor to this. Its use creates a health problem for many years into the future. Even in countries that have banned leaded paint decades previously, such paint continues to be a source of exposure until it is finally stripped and replaced. The cost of replacing lead paint means that people living in older, poorly-maintained housing are particularly at risk, and this disproportionately affects economically-deprived communities.
The WHO has identified lead as one of 10 chemicals of major public health concern, and lead requires action by member states in order to protect the health of workers, children and women of reproductive age. Such actions include adopting regulations and procedures to eliminate the use of decorative lead paints and provide information to the public on the renovation of homes where lead paint may have already been applied.
Paints with extremely high levels of lead are still available in most developing countries where paint testing has been conducted as part of the efforts of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. In most of the countries with lead paint, equivalent paint with no added lead is also available, suggesting that alternatives to lead are readily available to manufacturers, says David Piper, deputy director of the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, chemicals branch. International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action, provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the widespread availability of lead paint, he says.
Worldwide, 30 countries have already phased out the use of lead paint. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by the WHO and the UNEP, has set a target of 70 countries by 2015.
At high levels of exposure, lead damages the brain and central nervous system to cause comas, convulsions and even death. Children who survive such poisoning are often left with intellectual impairment and behavioural disorders.
At lower levels of exposure, which cause no obvious symptoms and that previously were considered safe, lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injuries across multiple body systems. In particular, lead affects brain development in children, resulting in reduced IQ, behavioural changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behaviour, and reduced educational attainment. These effects are believed to be irreversible. Adults are at increased risk of kidney disease and raised blood pressure.
The International Lead Poisoning Awareness Prevention Week of Action is running until Saturday. This year's theme, "Lead-Free Kids for a Healthy Future", underscores the importance of avoiding the use of lead paint and using safe alternatives in order to prevent children coming to harm from lead poisoning.
Report from the World Health Organisation.
Latest stories in this category:
- Making the holiday season last all year
- Navy can't bar slave trade fact
- Postbag: Rice delay weighs on poll
- The man with no name exposes justice flaws
- Our system is a democracy of lesser evils
- Changing the political system begins with the citizens
- Justice system is a bad joke
- A real people's forum gathers, sans politics