• Monday, Nov 29, 2021
  • Last Update : 02:19 am

Lead poisoning and child labour: Bangladesh has a long way to go

  • Published at 11:42 pm October 27th, 2021
Child labour - Children working

Bangladesh fourth worst-hit country in the world in terms of number of children affected by elevated blood lead level

While Bangladesh is struggling to eliminate hazardous child labour, it has been found that thousands of children are still exposed to some clandestine sources of lead at their workplace, which go unnoticed by the government.

The unregulated recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB) can be found in hundreds of factories surrounding Dhaka city and other places across the country. One can also find children working at small workshops, openly recycling batteries.

Unfortunately, the informal sector has yet to come under government lists as there is a lack of data, and society knows very little about lead poisoning and its impact on child health.

Accumulator Battery Manufacturers and Exporters Association of Bangladesh say the battery market is growing by about 12% annually, considering the growth of the battery market and demand for battery-operated rickshaws and easy bikes.

Meanwhile, child rights activists and experts opine that the informal sector should be formalized and brought under monitoring before it is too late.

Not enough data

The ninth International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, drawing attention to the health impacts of lead exposure through highlighting efforts by countries and partners to prevent childhood lead exposure, will be observed till 30 October, 2021.

Although lead poisoning at battery recycling factories directly harms children, the government does not have any recent data on the matter. The only data available on the issue is from a baseline survey conducted in 2002 and 2003.

According to the study published in 2004 by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), some 22,480 labourers were engaged in work at battery recharging or recycling establishments and 24.6% of them were children ages 5 to 17.

A 2018 report by the World Bank office in Bangladesh found that more than 1,100 informal and illegal ULAB recycling units were operating in the country. 

A Pure Earth survey in 2020, under a Toxic Site Identification Program in Bangladesh, found that 289 sites out of 340 initial sites across the country were contaminated with lead, resulting from informal or substandard ULAB recycling.

Health vs money

Due to their insolvency, neither the children nor the families they belong to object to working at these lead-contaminated factories from an early age.

According to experts, a factory with 80 workers has 5-10 working children aged not more than 12. Apart from the children, they said, such illegal setups may also cause severe health issues in more than a million people who dwell in close proximity.

Recent visits to Mohammadpur, Kamrangirchar, Gazipur and Dholaipar areas revealed that children were involved in breaking, sorting and furnace preparing activities without any protective gear.

The smelting operations mostly take place in the backyards of battery shops, homestead forests away from dwellings, residential areas within small towns, abandoned poultry farms, flour mills and filling stations.

Children involved in breaking batteries can earn only Tk4.5 per kilogram of recovered lead and typically extract 30-40kg a day, resulting in the highest daily income of Tk180.

Quoting a report published last year by Unicef and Pure Earth, Mahfuzur Rahman, director at the Bangladesh chapter of Pure Earth, said with an estimated 35.5 million children affected with blood lead levels above 5μg/dL (micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood), Bangladesh is the fourth worst-hit country in the world in terms of number of children affected.

The report estimates that the economic loss due to lead-attributable IQ reduction in Bangladesh is equivalent to 5.9% of the country’s GDP. 

Lead exposure adversely affects cognition, behaviour and academic performance, and causes health issues like anaemia and renal impairment, Rahman added.

Eco-Social Development Organization (ESDO) CEO and Executive Director Siddika Sultana notes that the effects of lead exposure in a child include damage to the brain and nervous system, stunted growth and development, learning and behavioural problems, and hearing and speech issues.

What needs to be done

The child labour unit of the Ministry of Labour and Employment has yet to include the battery recycling sector as a hazard for children.

However, the issue of lead poisoning has been somewhat addressed through some other hazardous work, such as working at automobile workshops and metal furniture/car painting.

The newly-appointed director of the Eradication of Hazardous Child Labour in Bangladesh (4th Phase) project, Monowar Hossain, said: “Listing of hazardous work is a continuous process and we update it from time to time.”

He said the project — worth Tk284 crore — would be implemented within 10 months to keep some 100,000 children away from hazardous work.

ESDO CEO Siddika Sultana said as these factories were still under the informal sector, there was no cut-off age for employment in force, which facilitates the employment of children.

“The sector needs to be formalized to ensure an age limit for working at ULAB processing units,” she said.

Mahfuzur Rahman of Pure Earth Bangladesh said the informal and unregulated sectors needed to be brought under monitoring to eliminate child labour.

“This is a newly developed area, so a lot of work needs to be done. And it needs a quick, effective coordination of the ministries working on health, labour and employment, environment, industries and education,” he remarked.

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