High levels of lead have been found in multiple powdered milk brands in Bangladesh, putting people, especially children, who consume the product in copious amounts at high risks of major health complications, including kidney disease and cancer.
Child health specialists say lead consumption via powdered milk is particularly hazardous for children, as it can lead to immune system complications in newborns and significantly delay their physical and mental development.
The observation came to light after tests in three government laboratories found the presence of lead in five of 15 powdered milk brands that are currently being imported into Bangladesh by different companies.
ICDDRB senior scientist Dr Mohammod Jobayer Chisti said delay in brain development is a common effect of lead consumption.
Dr Md Abdul Aziz, professor at Dhaka Shishu Hospital and a specialist in paediatric surgery, said the existence of lead in powdered milk is alarming as it could eventually lead to death if neglected long enough.
Children who consume lead regularly are also at risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity as well as early childhood cancer, said Aziz.
“This is not the first time Bangladesh has detected contamination in imported milk powder. Ten years ago, we saw a sudden rise in children being afflicted with kidney diseases. We found that they were suffering from these diseases because they consumed large quantities of powdered milk that contained lead. At that time, the government took immediate action,” he added.
Aziz further noted that the government should address the situation immediately before it turns into a public health crisis.
In 2008, the government cautioned people not to buy milk powder of eight foreign brands. Several brands from China, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand were found to contain melamine.
The Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) found that five brands contained the amount of lead that was beyond permissible level, following tests in three government laboratories: Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), the Atomic Energy Centre, and the Institute of Public Health (IPH).
In January, the BFSA asked the authorities concerned to ensure that all milk powder importers stocked products in their own warehouses and have them tested at designated laboratories before marketing.
Earlier in December 2017, French baby milk giant Lactalis International recalled all the products manufactured in one of its factories over fears of possible contamination by salmonella bacteria.
WHO’s definition of lead consumption risks
According to World Health Organization (WHO), lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
“After consumption, lead is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney, and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood,” says WHO.
A high level of lead can damage the brain and central nervous system causing coma, convulsions, and even death. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental disabilities and behavioural disorders as lead affects brain development.
This results in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioural changes such as reduced attention span, and increased antisocial behaviour.
For adults, lead causes long-term harm including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage.
If pregnant women ingest high levels of lead, problems such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, or minor malformations may occur.
A study called “Economic costs of childhood lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries,” developed by the Department of Pediatrics at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, says lead exposure costs Bangladesh $15.9 billion annually.