Lead poisoning is one of the most easily preventable environmental health hazards, yet it remains a major threat to the well-being of babies and children around the world.

As little as five micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood can have a profound impact on children. Those under the age of six are particularly susceptible. About 800 million children have high levels of lead in their blood, according to a study released in July by Unicef and Pure Earth.

Childhood health hazards

Blood Lead Levels (micrograms per decilitre)

Symptoms

Symptoms

Symptoms

Long-term effects

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to babies and children. It affects the brain’s development, causing reduced IQ, lower educational attainment and behavioural disorders.

Two long-term studies of children growing up in an era of leaded petrol indicate that high blood lead levels in childhood resulted in lower IQ scores in adulthood and possibly increased tendencies to commit violent crime.

Bad blood

How high blood lead levels affect a person’s IQ.

Long-term criminal behaviour studies

The charts below show the average blood lead levels recorded in childhood across four developed economies. The red line shows the crime rate 19 years later. There may be other factors involved but the closely aligned trajectories make a compelling case to link high blood lead levels in children with criminality in later life.

The cross-border transfer of toxic waste from developed countries to developing countries is banned under international law. There is, however, a robust illegal trade because it is more expensive to legally recycle e-waste than it is to ship and dump it overseas.

Global lead exposure

Blood lead levels have declined in high-income countries since the phasing out of leaded products, but for people in low- and middle-income countries, blood lead levels continue to be high.

Dangerous blood lead levels in children globally, 2019

Communities built near contaminated industrial sites — particularly lead-acid battery recycling facilities — are bathed in toxic air. This means many poorer sections of society are exposed to e-waste and dust, forced to eat produce grown in contaminated soil, and drink water tainted with harmful chemicals.

Children living in less developed countries are routinely exposed to lead. Children living at or near lead acid battery recycling workshops in India, for example, have been found to have lead levels up to 190 micrograms per decilitre, according to Dr. Abbas Mahdi, head of the department of bio-chemistry at King George’s Medical University in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.

Searching a rubbish dump for recyclable items in the city of Dimapur in Nagaland, India.

Communities built near contaminated industrial sites — particularly lead-acid battery recycling facilities — are bathed in toxic air. This means many poorer sections of society are exposed to e-waste and dust, forced to eat produce grown in contaminated soil, and drink water tainted with harmful chemicals.

Children living in less developed countries are routinely exposed to lead. Children living near recycling workshops in India, for example, have been found to have blood lead levels of up to 190 micrograms per decilitre.

Searching a rubbish dump for recyclable items in the city of Dimapur in Nagaland, India.

Children living in less developed countries are routinely exposed to lead. Children living near recycling workshops in India, for example, have been found to have blood lead levels of up to 190 micrograms per decilitre.

Searching a rubbish dump for recyclable items in the city of Dimapur in Nagaland, India.

Next generation

Passing on certain old toys to children can pose a risk to their health because many vintage toys contain toxic metals, particularly lead, in the paint, metal, and even some plastic parts.

According to the World Health Organization, as of May 31, 2020, only 39 per cent of countries (including China) have confirmed that they have legally binding controls on the production, import, sale and use of lead paints.

China’s e-waste problem

China began introducing legal provisions to stop the importation of e-waste from computers, mobile phones, and other electronics in the 1990s, but it only began enforcing the ban in the early 2000s. It is now the world’s largest generator of e-waste and although China increasingly treats and recycles domestic waste materials, large quantities of e-waste continue to enter the country illegally, according to NGO investigations.

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Top 25 e-waste generating countries, 2019

(million tonnes)

Before Beijing cracked down on importing e-waste, and prior to the Guiyu National Circular Economy Industry Park becoming fully operational in late 2015, the Guangdong town of Guiyu was widely seen as a global hub for the e-waste trade, and was thought to be the world’s largest e-waste dump. With more than 5,000 family-run recycling workshops scattered across the town emitting noxious fumes and other pollutants, it is reported that children living in Guiyu had significantly high blood lead levels (7.06 micrograms per decilitre).

The government-sponsored recycling park in Guiyu now uses hi-tech environmental treatment methods to deal with the air and water pollution and solid waste produced from dismantling e-waste.

The government-sponsored recycling park in Guiyu now uses hi-tech environmental treatment methods to deal with the air and water pollution and solid waste produced from dismantling e-waste.
The government-sponsored recycling park in Guiyu now uses hi-tech environmental treatment methods to deal with the air and water pollution and solid waste produced from dismantling e-waste.

Children’s average blood lead levels by country 2019

With rising governmental awareness of the environmental and health consequences, Beijing has passed new laws and regulations to address the issue. The amount of legally imported e-waste has declined substantially, but much continues to find its way into China through illegal means.

Creative Director Darren Long.

Photos: AFP, Reuters

Sources: The Toxic Truth: Children’s Exposure to Lead Pollution Undermines a Generation of Future Potential, UNICEF, Pure Earth, The Unz Review, Rick Nevin, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, BBC



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