How we fail our kids
published : 28 Sep 2012 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
At first, it seemed to be good news _ pollution control authorities found that industrial pollution was not the cause of high lead levels in Rayong children's blood.
But then came the bad news _ X-ray fluorescence lead detection equipment found dangerously high levels of lead and other heavy metals coating playground equipment, dining tables and plates at schools where students were found to have excess lead in their bodies.
When researchers from Thammasat University's public health faculty discovered the shocking fact in June last year that 82 out of 907 students at 15 schools had high blood lead counts, most people assumed that factories surrounding the schools were to blame.
The 15 schools are situated in four districts which are home to many industrial estates and petrochemical factories.
Second and third blood tests on the 82 kids earlier this year found that at least 40 still had lead in their blood exceeding the safe level of 10 microgrammes per decilitre (ug/dl). At least two kids had more than 45 ug/dl of lead, a level considered as lead poisoning.
To determine the source of the contamination, the Pollution Control Department examined two of the affected schools last Friday and found that playground equipment contained up to 2,000-3,000ppm of lead, exceeding the 600ppm safety level. They also found high levels of arsenic and chromium in soil samples taken from one of the school's playground and sport fields.
The discovery of lead contamination sources at the schools might bring some relief to Rayong-based factory operators and the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand as it helps clear them from being the culprits.
But whether the lead comes from industrial pollution or playground equipment is not as important as the fact that our children have been living in such a deadly environment for so long.
It is widely known that children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer serious health problems, from damage to the brain and nervous system, and learning problems, to slow growth.
But what I've found most unacceptable in this case is that the agencies responsible have taken such a long time to find out the source of the deadly heavy metal.
It has been 15 months since the first blood test was carried out, but it was only last week that pollution officials determined the lead sources and concluded it was not safe for children to play and eat at their own schools.
It took more than a year for the Public Health, the Education, and the Environment ministries to find out that this potential killer was under the same roof as the children.
Or perhaps they just didn't care about finding out the source of the contamination at all.
It has been reported that the day pollution control officials measured lead levels at the schools, children were still allowed to play in the lead-contaminated playgrounds and eat their lunch off lead-coated plates.
And it has been a week so far since pollution control officials detected the dangerous lead level at the schools, but the Education Ministry has done nothing to keep the students safe.
All the affected kids can do now is to "drink a lot of milk" to flush the lead out of their bodies, as suggested by local public health officials.
I feel really sorry for Thai children _ not only those in Rayong, but also Klity, Mae Tao and Mae Moh.
So many boys and girls in our country suffer from exposure to hazardous substances in the environment.
Kids from Klity in Kanchanaburi province are suffering from lead poisoning from mining pollution. Mae Tao children in Tak province are living with cadmium-contaminated soil, while Mae Moh kids have respiratory ailments thought to be caused by air pollution from a coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Lampang.
Our kids are getting sick and dying.
I beg the government to stop promoting its populist schemes for a while and for the opposition to halt its hate campaigns and instead see what they can do to save our children instead.
It's bad enough that we have failed to create a safe environment for our kids, but it's even worse that we can't protect them from harm when we've found out what's causing it.
Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post