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A third of world’s children poisoned by lead, says UNICEF


Lead poisoning is affecting children on a “massive and previously unknown scale”, according to a ground-breaking new study released last week by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and international non-profit organization focused on pollution issues, Pure Earth.

The report, the first of its kind, says that around one in three children – up to 800 million globally – have blood lead levels at, or above, five micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL), the amount at which action is required. Nearly half of these children live in South Asia.

“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences”, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore warned. “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 report – The Toxic Truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential – is an analysis of childhood lead exposure undertaken by the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation and verified with a study approved for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives. It features five case studies in Kathgora, Bangladesh; Tbilisi, Georgia; Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Pesarean, Indonesia; and Morelos State, Mexico.

Childhood lead exposure has also been linked to mental health and behavioural problems, and to an increase of crime and violence, the report says. It is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries, $1 trillion in lost economic potential of these children over their lifetimes.

Informal and substandard recycling of lead-acid batteries is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries, the report finds, where an increase in vehicle ownership and a lack of vehicle battery recycling regulation, has resulted in nearly half of lead-acid batteries being unsafely recycled in the informal economy.

Other sources of childhood exposure include lead in water from the use of leaded pipes, lead from active industry – such as mining – lead-based paint and pigments, and leaded gasoline.

Lead solder in food cans, as well as in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products, are also to blame. Parents whose occupations involve working with lead often bring contaminated dust home on their clothes, hair, hands and shoes, inadvertently exposing their children to the toxic element.

“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and neighbourhoods, said Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth, adding that “lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored.”


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Lead PoisoningUNICEF
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