Today, as we all are confronting serious health risks from environmental pollution and hazardous materials, children are not exempted. Over 40% of the global burden of disease attributed to environmental factors falls on children under five years of age. Around 800 million children globally (1 in 3 children) have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), a level that requires action.
More than half of children in Bangladesh (35.5 million out of 64 million) are affected with blood lead levels above 5 μg/dL, making it the fourth most-seriously hit country in the world. Many more are exposed even when they are in the womb. These uncertainties of exposure in early life pose an unknown health risk which may have lifelong implications in their future life. To ensure long-term economic and social development in the country, immediate action is critical to allow children living and thriving with good health and full potential.
To develop a comprehensive childhood lead poisoning prevention programme in a community (which is already known to be affected by lead poisoning), the identification of exposure sources is crucial. Lead contamination often occurs by industrial sources (manufacturing and recycling of lead acid battery, jewelry making and gold waste processing, pesticides, coal mining, shipbreaking) or products containing source (turmeric, aluminum cookware, paints, cosmetics, vermilion powder, amulets and jewelry). Inhalation of polluted air is another possible route of exposure. Airborne lead particulates emitted from industrial and residential sources or dust can enter the respiratory system, deposit into the lung, and absorb into the bloodstream. Local emission sources of lead may contribute to the elevated blood lead concentrations observed in the children.
Exposure to lead may cause cognitive delays, reduced IQ level, mental slowing and poor memory. Scientific evidence shows chronic lead exposure has been correlated with decreased intellectual ability and decreased growth among children. Protecting foetuses, infants and young children from any environmental health hazards and risks need to be on agenda for activist groups and organisations for child health and rights and most importantly for the government. Public awareness raising initiatives need to be well designed, planned and implemented. Media campaigns through electronic and print media, public, private and social media could have an enormous positive impact to change the norms and practices within families, communities and society.
The government can offer healthy and safe living for the whole nation, including children, by enforcing existing policies for reducing exposure to environmental hazards and risks. Responses and actions against this emerging public health issue in Bangladesh must be well-coordinated between public and private sector key role players and need to be addressed through an integrated, comprehensive approach to mitigate the sufferings of the lead affected child population and future generation.
Dr Mahfuzar Rahman is the Country Director of Pure Earth, Bangladesh.