LEAD is a highly toxic metal and a very strong poison. Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body. Lead is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the walls of old houses and toys. It is also found in art supplies; contaminated dust and gasoline products.
Lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of months or years. It can cause severe mental and physical impairment. Young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Children get lead in their bodies by putting lead-containing objects in their mouths. Touching lead-containing objects and then putting their fingers in their mouths may also poison them. Lead is more harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing.
Symptoms of lead poisoning are varied. Lead poisoning may affect many parts of the body. Most of the time, lead poisoning builds up slowly, followed by repeated exposures to small quantities of lead. Signs of repeated lead exposure include abdominal pain, abdominal cramps, aggressive behaviour, constipation, sleep problems, headaches, irritability, loss of developmental skills in children, loss of appetite, fatigue, high blood pressure, numbness or tingling in the extremities, memory loss, anaemia and kidney dysfunction. As child’s brain is developing, lead can create intellectual disability. Symptoms may include behaviour problems, low intelligent quotient, poor grades at school, problems with hearing, short- and long-term learning difficulties and growth delays. A high, toxic dose of lead poisoning may result in emergency symptoms. These include severe abdominal pain and cramping, vomiting, muscle weakness, stumbling when walking, seizures, coma and encephalopathy.
Common sources of lead are house paint, toys and household items, bullets, curtain weights, and fishing sinkers made of lead, pipes and faucets, soil polluted by car exhaust or chipping house paint, paint sets and art supplies, jewellery, pottery, storage batteries and some traditional ethnic medicines.
Simple steps can help to prevent lead poisoning. These are keeping houses free from dust, using only cold water to prepare food and drink, making sure that everyone washes hands before eating and testing water for lead. If lead levels are high, use a filtering device or drink bottled water; clean faucets and aerators regularly, wash children’s toys and bottles regularly, teach children to wash their hands after playing, make sure any contractor doing work in your house is certified in lead control and use lead-free paint in your home.
Meanwhile, environment and social development research on paint sold in Dhaka and Chittagong in 2013 and 2015 found lead concentration in yellow paint averaging about 40,000ppm, about 500 times higher than the new 90ppm standard. In 2013, environment and social development organisations found no paints that fell below the 90ppm standard. In 2015, nine paint samples (out of 49 tested) were below 90ppm, but 17 samples were above 10,000ppm. Bangladesh has recently enacted a law limiting 90ppm of lead in decorative paints. At least 73 countries currently have similar statutory limits on the production, import, or sale of paints with lead.
Shishir Reza is an environmental analyst and associate member of Bangladesh Economic Association.