OP-ED: Poison in our blood

A need to push for global eradication of lead poisoning

According to the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation (IHME), 800 million children globally have higher blood lead levels than normal. Based on the 2019 Global Burden of Disease dataset, IHME estimated that approximately 900,000 adults died every year as a result of lead poisoning.

The irony of lead poisoning is that there is no safe level for lead exposure, according to the World Health Organization. Blood lead levels at or above 5 g/dL are the level at which the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated requires intervention, and a level at which the World Health Organization says may be associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioral problems, and learning difficulties. 

Even at very low concentrations, it operates as a dangerous toxin, and levels above 5 g/dl are regarded as a cause for action. Furthermore, lead exposure even at low concentrations could result in cognitive and neurological problems. Common lead exposure occurs primarily from cookware and recycled batteries.  

In recent empirics, blood lead levels have declined dramatically in most high-income countries since the phase-out of leaded gasoline and most lead-based paints. However, unfortunately, blood lead levels for children in low- and middle-income countries have remained elevated. 

The IHME report features five-country case studies -- Bangladesh, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, and Mexico -- where lead pollution and other toxic heavy metal waste have affected children. A coordinated and concerted governmental approach across all avenues has been suggested by the IHME. 

Lead poisoning mounts a multi-pronged and enduring attack on children’s health and development during their vulnerable and formative years, leading to devastating lifelong effects. Increasingly, evidence also points to lead poisoning as a root cause of violence and crime as a long-term effect of neurological damage to children’s brains.  

Maintaining protective regulations and vigilance in the food production industry is key to avoiding devastating consequences. Therefore, global eradication is needed to combat all sources of contamination through strict safe food policies. 

Additionally, global commitment to the reduction of lead exposure is warranted, where global leaders and governments should join hands and take urgent action to make sure all children are being fed in a safe, secure, and healthy environment. The longer the lead exposure continues, the greater the likelihood of disease. 

Potential global focus could be:

1. Monitoring and reporting on blood lead level testing 

2. Building awareness, prevention, and control measures on minimizing children’s exposure

3. Establishing treatment facility, management,  and remediation including strengthening governmental  systems, fostering non-government organizational platform for appropriate detection, monitor, and referencing as well as enhanced educational interventions and cognitive behavioral therapy to better manage the negative effects of lead exposure 

4. Exploring sources of exposure and making the public aware by education campaigns 

5. Legislation and policy, including developing, implementing, and enforcing environmental, health, and safety standards for manufacturing and recycling of lead-acid batteries and e-waste, and enforcing environmental and air-quality regulations 

Considering children’s health and wellbeing globally, eliminating lead poisoning could act as a central pillar. The roll-out of blood lead testing in national surveillance protocols is an urgent need. We need global action for global eradication of lead poisoning. 

Dr Mahfuzar Rahman is Country Director, Pure Earth Bangladesh. Dr Rahman is an environmental epidemiologist, earlier having worked with icddrb, Columbia University, Brac and UNICEF. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

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