800 million children are still exposed to dangerous levels of lead, report warns

TRONDHEIM, Norway — While products like lead paint may seem like a thing of the past, exposure to dangerous chemicals is still the norm for much of the world. A new report finds around 800 million children may have harmful levels of lead in their blood. Although not every case will be fatal, researchers warn lead’s effects will cause many children to never reach their full potential in life.

“A child’s earliest years of life are characterized by rapid growth and brain development. This makes children particularly vulnerable to harmful substances in the environment,” Kam Sripada from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) says in a media release.

Lead is a natural element, but it is also a neurotoxin which damages the human body even in low amounts. Lead poisoning can cause numerous health issues ranging from stomach pain, to brain damage, to death.

Exposure to lead doesn’t always result in immediate and noticeable side-effects. Researchers say it can also accumulate in the blood over a long period and cause fatigue due to anemia. At higher levels, lead particles attack the blood, bone marrow, kidneys, and the nervous system. This can also affect your IQ and result in lifelong behavioral issues.

Where are dangers of lead the greatest?

The disturbing estimate comes from UNICEF and the group Pure Earth, which works to solve pollution problems harming humans. Sripada works with international organizations researching health inequalities, particularly for children.

Researchers reveal the hardest hit areas for lead exposure centers in less economically developed nations. Much of the lead poisoning comes from lead-acid batteries which are not properly recycled. The study finds the number of cars and other vehicles in these countries has tripled in the last two decades, causing the use of these batteries to spike. Study authors say nearly half of these lead batteries are never recovered or safely recycled.

“Lead is a health threat to children in every single country in the world. However, children in low- or middle-income countries are the most vulnerable, especially in South Asia and among marginalized groups in general. There are major social differences when it comes to lead exposure and other environmental toxins that we need to address,” Sripada explains.

The impact to children lasts into adulthood

The study adds water pipes, paint, canned foods, makeup, toys, and even contaminated spices can all be a source of lead exposure. Lead also used to be found in gasoline and the report says there are traces of this in soil samples to this day.

“This report shines the spotlight on lead as an important global environmental and health problem that is especially tied to children’s health and development,” says Heidi Aase, leader of the NeuroTox study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Due to this widespread exposure, researchers believe countries may also suffer serious economic losses when these children grow up. The Norwegian NeuroTox report looks at connections between toxins in a mother’s womb and brain development. Researchers believe environmental toxins present during pregnancy affect a baby’s development, possibly resulting in cases of ADHD, autism, and lower cognitive abilities.

One of the major factors in this connection is the socioeconomic status of these mothers. Income, living conditions, and education all play a role in who encounters lead during their lives, regardless of the country.

“The UNICEF report and other studies show that poverty is associated with higher lead levels and an increased risk of harmful effects on health. We’ll investigate whether this picture applies to pregnant women and children in Norway as well,” Aase adds.

No amount of exposure is safe

Norwegian researcher say children in the European country generally have lower levels of lead than less developed nations in the UNICEF report. Despite this finding, the study concludes these lead levels are still higher than the limit scientists consider harmful to humans. Studies on lead also reveal that even extremely low exposure to the element can affect the brain and nervous system.

“As of today, no value limit has been established that is considered safe and therefore the number of children affected could be much higher both in Norway and in other countries,” warns NeuroTox researcher Gro Dehli Villanger.

The study appears in the UNICEF’s report The toxic truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of future potential.

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