World trade and the globalisation of goods can literally bring lead poisoning to our front doors. Lead paint found on toys, furniture and other imported objects present immediate and serious health risks to our children.
On the occasion of International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, increased awareness is needed to prevent 143 000 deaths and 600 000 new cases of irreversible lead-induced intellectual disability every year.
Mouthing and chewing on lead-painted toys and other objects has been found to be a major cause of exposure. Lead paint commonly has a sweet taste and encourages children to pick off and swallow small chips of paint. Lead paint chips can also be picked off decaying walls, furniture and other painted surfaces.
High exposures to lead can damage the brain, central nervous system and cause coma, convulsions and death. Children who survive such poisonings are often left with lower IQs and lead-induced behavioural disorders. Behaviour disorders can include shortened attention spans and increased antisocial behaviours that result in diminished educational attainment.
Initial low-level lead poisoning can present with no symptoms or include headaches, constipation, abdominal pain, cramping and difficulty sleeping. Initial symptoms of high-lead exposure can include muscle weakness, staggering walk and vomiting.
“The good news is that exposure to lead paint can be entirely stopped through a range of measures to restrict the production and use of lead paint,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment.
Pregnant mothers and young children living in economically deprived communities are exposed to the highest levels of lead through unsafe household paints, particularly in colours red and yellow, where lead is added as a pigment. Such paint should be stripped off, replaced and special care given to any lead dust and waste products.
“Paints with extremely high levels of lead are still available and… in most of the countries with lead paint, equivalent paint with no added lead is also available, suggesting that alternatives to lead are readily available to manufacturers,” says David Piper, Deputy Director, UNEP DTIE Chemicals Branch.
If you think you or your child has been exposed to lead, see your doctor or contact your local public health department. A simple test can help determine the level of lead in the blood.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global health care education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
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