Bangladesh is the fourth most-seriously hit country in the world in terms of the number of children affected by lead poisoning.
UNICEF and Pure Earth in a statement on Thursday called for urgent action to abolish dangerous practices including the informal recycling of lead acid batteries.
Lead poisoning is affecting children on a massive and previously unknown scale, according to a new global report launched today by UNICEF and 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 deciliter (µg/dL), the level at which requires action.
Nearly half of these children live in South Asia. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that 35.5 million children are affected with blood lead levels above 5 μg/dL, making the country the fourth most-seriously hit in the world in terms of the number of children affected.
“Lead exposure has severe and long-lasting health and development effects on children, including lifelong learning disabilities and their capacity to earn an income when they grow up,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.
“UNICEF will be working with the concerned actors to help address dangerous metal waste and lead pollution and the toll it takes on children”.
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.
In Bangladesh, illegal recycling of used lead-acid batteries in the open-air and close to homestead areas is considered to be a major source of lead exposure.
This poses a significant health risk for both children and adults. According to the Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation, Bangladesh has the world's fourth-highest rate of death due to lead exposure with an average population blood lead level of 6.83 μg/dL, which is the eleventh highest in the world.
The research also found that high concentrations of lead were found in spices in Bangladesh.
Lead chromate, which is used to enhance colour and weight of turmeric as a sign of quality, contributes to the elevated lead blood levels in children and adults alike.
According to one study, some concentrations exceeded the national limit by up to 500 times. The report estimates that the economic loss due to lead-attributable IQ reduction in Bangladesh is equivalent to 5.9 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Lead poisoning hampers children’s ability to fully develop and prevents them from taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities in life.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
“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 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 as it damages their brains before they have had the opportunity to fully develop, 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.
Older children suffer severe consequences including increased risk of kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases in later life, the report says.
Childhood lead exposure is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries almost $1 trillion due to lost economic potential of these children over their lifetime.
The report notes that informal and substandard recycling of lead-acid batteries is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children living in low and middle-income countries, which have experienced a three-fold increase in the number of vehicles since 2000.
The increase in vehicle ownership, combined with the lack of vehicle battery recycling regulation and infrastructure, has resulted in up to 50 per cent of lead-acid batteries being unsafely recycled in the informal economy.
Workers in dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil, and smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces that emit toxic fumes poisoning the surrounding community.
Often, the workers and the exposed community are not aware that lead is potent neurotoxin.
Other sources of childhood lead exposure include lead in water from the use of leaded pipes; lead from active industry, such as mining and battery recycling; lead-based paint and pigments; leaded gasoline, which has declined considerably in recent decades, but was a major historical source; lead solder in food cans; and lead in spices, cosmetics, ayurvedic medicines, toys and other consumer products.
Parents whose occupations involve working with lead often bring contaminated dust home on their clothes, hair, hands and shoes, thus inadvertently exposing their children to the toxic element.
“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighborhoods. Lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored,” said Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth.
“People can be educated about the dangers of lead and empowered to protect themselves and their children. The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet.”