As many as 800 million children have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Neurotoxin can cause permanent brain damage.
Huge international figures come from a new report by Clean Earth and UNICEF. Clean Earth works to solve pollution problems that can be harmful to humans.
“The earliest years of a child’s life are characterized by rapid brain growth and development. This makes children particularly sensitive to harmful substances in the environment,” says Kam Sripada, a postdoc from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) who contributed the report.
Sripada collaborates with international organizations in researching social health inequalities, especially among children.
“Exposure to lead during pregnancy and early in life can lead to the baby never reaching its potential,” she says.
Sripada works at NTNU’s Center for Global Health Inequality Research (LANCI) in collaboration with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and UNICEF.
Lead is an element, but also a powerful neurotoxin that can cause damage at the level of only five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Lead poisoning can be acute and can cause everything from stomach pain to brain damage, coma and death.
But lead poisoning can also occur slowly, as it accumulates in the body over a long period of time. The most common symptom is lethargy due to anemia. High levels of lead can attack the blood and bone marrow, the nervous system and the kidneys.
Lead poisoning can also contribute to lower IQ and behavioral problems that can last a lifetime.
“Lead is a health threat to children in every single country in the world. However, children in low- and middle-income countries are most vulnerable, especially in South Asia and among marginalized groups in general. There are major social differences when it comes to exposure to lead and other environmental toxins. which we have to deal with, ”Sripada says.
A lot of lead comes from lead batteries that are not recycled responsibly. The number of motor vehicles has tripled in low- and middle-income countries in the last 20 years, which in turn has led to a sharp increase in lead-containing batteries. Approximately half of the batteries are not properly recycled or recovered.
Water pipes, industry, paints and numerous household products such as canned food, contaminated spices, makeup and toys also contribute. Lead that was previously used in gasoline is still in the soil today.
Indirectly, countries can suffer huge income losses as children grow up with these sources of lead exposure. As adults, they are often unable to make an optimal contribution to the social economy.
“This is a report of global significance,” says NTNU professor Terje Andreas Eikemo, who heads CHAIN.
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States believe the situation requires international action, such as additional information and strengthening the health care system in several countries.
“This report highlights lead as an important global environmental and health issue that is particularly related to children’s health and development,” says Heidi Aase, head of the NeuroTox study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
The NeuroTox study examines the relationships between environmental toxins in the mother’s uterus, including lead, and various measures of brain development. ADHD, autism and cognitive functions are considered in a large sample of Norwegian children. Environmental toxins found in the mother’s body during pregnancy can affect the baby’s development.
LANAC will use the NeuroTox study to study the relationship between socioeconomic factors, such as income, education and living conditions, and the levels of lead and other environmental toxins in pregnant women and their children.
“The UNICEF report and other studies show that poverty is associated with higher levels of lead and an increased risk of adverse health effects. We will investigate whether this picture applies to both pregnant women and children in Norway,” says Aase.
The results of NeuroTox and CHAIN research can also be used in a variety of ways internationally, such as preventing social inequalities in health, including the harmful effects of toxins from the environment.
The average blood lead level in children from low- and middle-income countries in the UNICEF report is far higher than in Norwegian children. Nevertheless, the report calculated that many Norwegian children may have lead levels above the limit that we know is detrimental to brain development.
“This is worrying,” says NeuroTox researcher Gro Dehli Villanger.
Studies show that brain and nervous system damage can occur at far lower lead levels than the limit used in the report.
“As of today, no value limit has been established that is considered safe, so the number of affected children could be much higher both in Norway and in other countries,” Villanger says.
Source: Poisonous truth. Exposure of children to lead pollution undermines the generation of future potentials. https://www.unicef.org/reports/toxic-truth-childrens-exposure-to-lead-pollution-2020
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