MORE than a half of the children and young population having been exposed to lead concentration at levels likely to cause irreparable, long-term health impact, as the United Nations Children’s Fund says, comes with concern, calling out the government on immediately shoring up a number of issues to minimise exposure to lead concentration. The report on children’s exposure to lead concentration that the UN children’s agency and Pure Earth released on July 30 says that close to 35.53 million children in Bangladesh — UNICEF estimates that 40 per cent of the 160 million people of Bangladesh are children, which comes down to 64 million — have lead levels of 5 micrograms per decilitre or above in their blood and such a situation warrants an immediate action. The report, which is an analysis of childhood lead exposure carried out by the Washington-based Institute of Health Metrics Evaluation, also says that at least 9.67 million of children have lead levels of 10 micrograms per decilitre in their blood. Globally, as the report says, one in three of about 800 million children and young people aged below 19 years have 5 micrograms per decilitre of lead or above in their blood.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin which causes irreparable harm to children’s brain. It damages brain in children aged below five before the brain fully develops, which can lead to neurological, cognitive and physical impairment such as kidney damage and cardiovascular diseases in later life. Childhood lead exposure can also impact mental health and lead to behavioural problems and an increase in crime and violence. Lead exposure in children is estimated to cost lower- and middle-income countries about $1 trillion because of lost economic potential of such children over their lifetime. It is, therefore, important for the government to know how widespread lead pollution is and how it can be stopped. In Bangladesh, as the report at hand says and as media in Bangladesh reported earlier, much of the lead exposure happens through turmeric as manufacturers apply lead to brighten the product. In some cases, lead concentration in turmeric is said to be 500 times the national limit. The report, referring to a World Bank report, says that an estimated 1,100 informal used lead-acid battery recycling sites have put more than a million people at risk in Bangladesh. Pure Earth and the University of Dhaka have identified and assessed a quarter of such sites since 2011. Other sources of childhood lead exposure are said to include lead in water from leaded supply line, lead from active industries such as mining, lead-based paint and pigments, leaded petrol, and lead in food cans, cosmetics, toys and other consumer products.
The government must, in such a situation, ensure that manufacturers do not use lead to brighten turmeric, an area where the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution has largely failed, while it must strengthen its legal instruments to hold to account informal used acid-lead battery recycling sites and to bring down the use of lead in other products that people use every day. The government must also take whatever steps needed to stop people’s exposure to lead concentration.
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