Each year, approximately 1 million people die from lead poisoning, and millions more, many of them children, are exposed to low levels of lead that cause lifelong health problems such as anemia, hypertension, immunotoxicity, and organ toxicity reproductive. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead could be irreversible.
World Health Organization WHO recommends that the source of lead exposure be identified and steps taken to reduce and terminate exposure for all people with a blood lead level of more than 5 ug/dl. There is no safe level of exposure to lead, which is harmful to health, particularly the health of children.
UNICEF estimates that 1 in 3 children (up to 800 million worldwide) have blood lead levels of 5 µg/dl or higher, and immediate global action is needed to address this problem.
“Lead exposure is especially dangerous to children’s developing brains and can result in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), attention span, impaired learning ability, and increased risk of behavior problems.” Says Dr. Maria Nera, Director of the WHO, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “This preventable damage to children’s brains leads to a tragic loss of potential.”
Lead is toxic to multiple body systems, including the brain and central nervous system, the reproductive system, the kidneys, the cardiovascular system, the blood system, and the immune system. Lead exposure is estimated to account for 21.7 million years lost to disability and death (disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs) worldwide, due to long-term health effects.
The WHO estimates that 30% of idiopathic intellectual disability, 4.6% of cardiovascular disease, and 3% of chronic kidney disease can be attributed to lead exposure.
There are many sources of lead exposure in industrial settings such as mining and smelting, recycling of electronic waste and lead-acid batteries, plumbing, and munitions in settings that could potentially expose children and adolescents, particularly in developing economies. Exposure can also occur in non-industrial settings, as lead paint can be found in homes, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds. Children can ingest flakes and dust from lead-painted toys or surfaces or be exposed through lead-glazed pottery and some traditional medicines and cosmetics.
“We have made significant progress.” says Lesley Onyon, Head of Unit, Chemical Safety, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “The world has seen a significant reduction in the use of lead in paint in the last 10 years with more than 84 countries now having legally binding controls to limit the production, import and sale of lead paint. We now also have a global ban on leaded gasoline. But there is still more work to be done. Lead poisoning is completely preventable through a variety of measures to restrict the uses of lead and monitor and manage exposures. That is why this year we are expanding the scope to prevent all sources of lead exposure.”
Important sources of exposure include environmental contamination from the recycling of lead-acid batteries and poorly controlled lead mining and smelting operations; the use of traditional remedies that contain lead; lead ceramic glazes used in food containers; lead pipes and other lead-containing components in water distribution systems; and lead paint.
The WHO has identified lead as one of the 10 chemicals of greatest public health concern that requires action by member states to protect the health of workers, children and women of reproductive age.
WHO calls on all countries to ban lead paint, identify and eliminate all sources of childhood lead exposure, educate the public about the dangers of misusing lead-containing products, and say no to lead poisoning.
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