A new report states that around one in three children has blood lead levels at or above five micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). Out of the 800 million children worldwide that are suffering from lead poisoning, nearly half of them are in South Asia.
The report from the United Nations Children's Fund> titled 'The Toxic Truth: Children's exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential', says that India has over 275 million children with blood lead levels higher than considered safe (five micrograms per decilitre). This is also the highest number of lead poisoning cases in children of any country. An analysis of data from different studies on blood lead levels in Indian children found that they could lose four IQ points each simply from lead exposure.
Indian children living at or near lead-acid battery recycling workshops have been found to have lead levels up to 190 micrograms per decilitre, Dr Abbas Mahdi, Head of biochemistry at King George's Medical University in Uttar Pradesh told BBC.
About 6 million children die around the world each year, and India accounts for about a fifth of those deaths. Image Credit: Venkataramesh Kommoju/Uni of Toronto
Lead can make its way into the body from anywhere, be it from the air, soil, water and even some homes. It can be found in trace amounts in Sindoor, art supplies, paints of old houses and toys, leaded gasoline. Lead has also been found in food items like black pepper powder, chilli powder, garam masala, as well as in a brand of instant noodles popular in India, as per a study.
The leading cause of lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries is subpar recycling of lead-acid batteries. The manufacturing of these batteries has seen a steady increase with the spike in number of vehicles over the past two decades. As per the UNICEF report, childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost USD $1 trillion due to the lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.
How lead poisoning affects children and infants
Lead poisoning is a serious health hazard that can also be lethal if left unaddressed. It occurs over months and years of lead build-up, and young children in particular are very vulnerable to its effects. According to the WHO, exposure to excessive levels of lead is harmful to the health and intellectual development of millions of children.
Lead exposure has also been linked to behavioural problems and an increase of crime and violence, the report states. Older children suffer severe consequences of lead poisoning, including a higher risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases in later life. In babies and children under the age of five, lead can have disastrous consequences, since it damages the brain and nervous system before it is fully developed. This, in turn, can cause neurological, cognitive and physical impairment throughout their life.
According to a study, lead in the blood can damage red blood cells and limit their ability to carry oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it, causing anaemia. It can also affect bones, interfering with the absorption of calcium that bones need to grow healthy and strong.
"With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children's health and development, with possibly fatal consequences," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director in a press 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."