About one in three children worldwide – as many as 800 million – has a level of lead in their blood above the concentration requiring action, according to a new report by the United Nations children’s organisation Unicef and Pure Earth.
Lead, the report explains, “is a potent neurotoxin which causes irreparable harm to children’s brains. It is particularly destructive to babies and children under the age of five as it damages their brains before they have had the opportunity to fully develop, causing them lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment.”
The danger level is set at 5 micrograms (five thousandths of a milligram) per decilitre (100ml) of blood.
In Belgium, the report estimates, there are between 89,877 and 412,420 children with blood lead levels higher than the danger level. And there could be as many as 40,770 with a level twice as high.
The region most affected, with an upper estimate of more than 450 million, is South Asia. Europe (including Eastern Europe) and Central Asia together account for 42 million.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
“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.”
The main sources of lead poisoning are industrial processes like the recycling of lead-acid batteries, carried out in the countries most affected by children using dangerous and unprotected methods.
“Workers in dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil, and smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces that emit toxic fumes poisoning the surrounding community. Often, the workers and the exposed community are not aware that lead is a potent neurotoxin,” the report explains.
Other sources of exposure included water from lead pipes, lead-based paints, leaded petrol, some folk medicines and cosmetics, and parents who work in dangerous conditions and bring home contaminated dust on their clothing, hair and shoes.
“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighbourhoods,” said Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth, a non-profit formerly known as the Blacksmith Institute.
“People can be educated about the dangers of lead and empowered to protect themselves and their children. The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet.”