Lead poisoning is affecting children on a “massive and previously unknown scale”, according to a ground-breaking new study launched on Thursday 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 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million globally – have blood lead levels at, or above, 5 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.
The report notes that lead is a potent neurotoxin which causes irreparable harm to children’s brains. It is particularly destructive to babies and children under the age of five, causing them lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical impairment.
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.