The World of International Organizations

UNICEF says lead poisons up to 800 million kids

Lead paint removal from a home in New Orleans (AN/Bart Everson)

GENEVA — A third of the world’s children, far more than previously known, have elevated levels of lead in their blood that could lead to irreversible harm, UNICEF and anti-pollution campaigners Pure Earth reported on Thursday.

Research and data indicate up to 800 million children are exposed to lead by inhaling dust and fumes from used lead-acid battery recycling operations and open-air smelters; eating food contaminated by lead-glazed pottery and lead-infused spices; living in homes with peeling lead paint; or playing near lead-laced electronic waste dumps, the United Nations children’s agency and Pure Earth concluded.

Those children had blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a cause for action and the World Health Organization associates with lower IQ, attention deficits, behavioral issues and learning problems. Researchers have documented that even low levels of lead exposure can be damaging to brains and kidneys.

“The unequivocal conclusion of this research is that children around the world are being poisoned by lead on a massive and previously unrecognized scale,” UNICEF and Pure Earth said in a 96-page report that uses statistical modeling and data from blood tests on children among 195 nations.

Its conclusions are based on analysis by the U.S.-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IHME, part of the University of Washington state, that was verified with a study approved for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives. Five case studies are included from Kathgora, Bangladesh; Tbilisi, Georgia; Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Pesarean, Indonesia; and Morelos State, Mexico.

Most of the affected children live among poorer nations in Africa and Asia. Othes are in Central and South America and Eastern Europe. Blood lead levels dropped among children in wealthier nations that began phasing out leaded gasoline and lead-based paint in recent decades. But some children and adults in low- and middle-income nations, and in a few wealthier places, still have high levels.

A well-known hazard

Health experts have worried for years about the long-term risks of lead exposure in adults and children, who are particularly vulnerable. Children younger than seven and pregnant women are most at risk.

“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement. “Knowing how widespread lead pollution is — and understanding the destruction it causes to individual lives and communities — must inspire urgent action to protect children once and for all.”

Lead contamination commonly results from its use in gasoline, old paint and vehicle batteries, but also occurs with fumes in smelters and fires, aging water pipes and electronics junkyards. The study said the recycling of lead in car batteries is a growing concern especially in poorer, less regulated nations.

Parents whose workplaces contain lead often expose their children through dust that collects on clothes, hair and hands. The study said it found nearly 1 million adults a year die of lead exposure.

“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth, a New York-based international organization. “Lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored.”

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