By The Editors
When we think epidemics, we think infectious pathogens. However, there are other epidemics – one of them is the lead epidemic. Lead poisoning accounts for at least 0.6% of the global burden of disease (WHO, 2009). The Blacksmith Institute considers lead pollution one of the world’s worst pollution problems. In much of the Western world, the problem is almost contained. However, in countries with little regulation, there are devastating lead epidemics and, at times, lead outbreaks.
Lead is a toxic, naturally occurring heavy metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Because of its abundance, low cost, and physical properties, lead and lead compounds have been used in a wide variety of products such as paints, ceramics, pipes and gasoline, to name a few. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no amount of lead is safe. Eliminating all lead exposure in our environment is the best course of action to protect ourselves from lead toxicity.
Lead affects all systems within the body. At high levels, it can cause convulsions, coma, and can even be fatal. At lower levels, it can cause adverse health effects on the central nervous system, kidneys, and blood cells. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. Children may be exposed to higher levels of lead because they are more likely to get lead dust on their hands and then put their fingers or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths.
Below are examples of epidemics and outbreaks of lead poisoning, all occurring within the last ten years.
One of the most severe lead poising epidemics occurred in Kosovo, resulting in tens of fatalities. Affected people lived within 200 yards of three huge mounds of industrial waste, the byproduct of a lead smelting factory that operated from the 1920’s until 2000.
Haina, in the Dominican Republic, has been considered by the United Nations one of the sites with the highest level of lead contamination in the world. The entire population is affected by lead poisoning because of its close proximity to an abandoned lead-acid battery recycling smelter.
In the Dakar neighborhood of Thiaroye-Sur-Mer, Senegal, 18 children under the age of five died from acute lead poisoning. Exposure to deadly lead dust caused by the informal recycling of used car batteries caused the deaths.
The most recent (last few years) and at the same time the worst outbreak occurred in Zamfara, Nigeria Over 400 children died because of exposure to lead caused by gold mining, and thousands more are now brain damaged and disabled. Watch the short video below to find out why the lead poisoning outbreak occurred.
Finally, let’s not forget that lead poisoning has been called the “silent epidemic” in the US, where it affects not only low-income communities but also the middle class, as result of the remodeling of old houses painted before lead paint was banned in 1978.