Bangladesh has the world’s fourth-highest death rate due to lead exposure with an average population blood lead level of 6.83 µg/dL, which is the 11th highest globally, according to the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation.
Bangladesh is the fourth most-seriously hit in terms of the number of children affected as lead poisoning is affecting them on a massive and previously unknown scale in the world, says a new global report.
In Bangladesh, areas are considered to be a major source of lead exposure due to illegal recycling of used lead-acid batteries in the open-air and close to the homestead.
This poses a significant health risk for both children and adults.
The report estimates that the economic loss due to lead-attributable IQ reduction in Bangladesh is equivalent to 5.9 percent of the country’s GDP.
“Lead exposure has severe and long-lasting health and development effects on children, including lifelong learning disabilities and their capacity to earn an income when they grow up. UNICEF will be working with the concerned actors to help address dangerous metal waste and lead pollution and the toll it takes on children,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth said: “There is good news to hope. The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and their surrounding neighborhoods. Lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored.
“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.”
Childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost $1 trillion due to the lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.
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 notes that lead is a potent neurotoxin that causes irreparable harm to children’s brains.
The research also found that high concentrations of lead were found in spices in Bangladesh.
Lead chromate, which is used to enhance the color and weight of turmeric as a sign of quality, contributes to the elevated lead blood levels in children and adults alike.
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.
The first of its kind, says that around 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million globally – have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which requires action. Nearly half of these children live in South Asia.
According to one study, some concentrations exceeded the national limit by up to 500 times.
Lead poisoning hampers children’s ability to fully develop and prevents them from taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities in life.
The report notes that informal and substandard recycling of the lead-acid battery is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries, which have experienced a three-fold increase in the number of vehicles since 2000.
The increase in vehicle ownership, combined with the lack of vehicle battery recycling regulation and infrastructure, has resulted in up to 50 percent of lead-acid batteries being unsafely recycled in the informal economy.
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.
Other sources of childhood lead exposure include lead-in water from the use of leaded pipes; lead from active industry, such as mining and battery recycling; lead-based paint and pigments; leaded gasoline, which has declined considerably in recent decades, but was a major historical source; lead solder in food cans; and lead in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products.
Parents whose occupations involve working with the lead often bring contaminated dust home on their clothes, hair, hands, and shoes, thus inadvertently exposing their children to the toxic element.
While blood lead levels have declined dramatically in most high-income countries since the phase-out of leaded gasoline and most lead-based paints, blood lead levels for children in low- and middle-income countries have remained elevated and, in many cases, dangerously high even a decade after the global phase-out of leaded gasoline.
The report features case studies from five countries where lead pollution and other toxic heavy metal waste have affected children.
These are Kathgor, Bangladesh; Tbilisi, Georgia; Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Pesaran, Indonesia; and Morelos State, Mexico.
The report notes that governments in affected countries can address lead pollution and exposure among children using a coordinated and the concerted approach across monitoring and reporting systems including building capacity for blood lead level testing.
Prevention and control measures including preventing children’s exposure to high-risk sites and products that contain lead, such as certain ceramics, paints, toys, and spices.
Management, treatment, and remediation including strengthening health systems so that they are equipped to detect, monitor and treat lead exposure among children; and providing children with enhanced educational interventions and cognitive behavioral therapy to better manage the negative effects of lead exposure.
Public awareness and behavior change including creating continual public education campaigns about the dangers and sources of lead exposure with direct appeals to parents, schools, community leaders, and healthcare workers.
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 for smelting operations.
Global and regional activities including creating global standard units of measure to verify the results of pollution intervention on public health, the environment, and local economies; building an international registry of anonymized results of blood lead level studies; and creating international standards and norms around recycling and transportation of used lead-acid batteries.