The Problem of Lead Poisoning in Developing Countries

Published 02 Aug 2016

The Center for Disease Control made a study of the causes of disease and death. It showed that: 50 % is due to unhealthy lifestyles; 25 % is due to environment; 25% is due to innate biology, and 25% is due to inadequate health care. Death due to environmental problems is indeed a global concern which transcends boundaries and borders.

One environmental issue that must be addressed is the problem of lead poisoning. Research shows that the incident of lead poisoning is very alarming, especially in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 15 to 18 Million children in developing countries suffer permanent brain damage because of lead poisoning. In India, studies show that on the average over 50% of the children below the age of 12 years in urban environments in India had unacceptable blood levels of 10 mcg/dl or more.

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In developed countries such as the United States, lead poisoning was one of its major problems. It was estimated that nearly one million children living in the United States have blood lead levels high enough to impair their ability to think, concentrate and learn. Nowadays, there has been a sharp decline in the cases of lead poisoning in past years due to sustained government efforts to educate the public and publicize the dangers of lead. It is because of these reasons that the National Referral Center for Lead Poisoning considers leading as the number one environmental poison amongst the toxic heavy metals all over the world causing serious health hazards to humans especially young children.

This research paper is particularly interested in the problem of lead poisoning. A discussion will be made on the extent of the lead poisoning problem in both the developed and developing Countries. A short comparison will be made between the environmental policies of developed and developing countries as a response to this global problem. This research aims to determine the reasons why there is a success in controlling this problem in developed countries such as the United States. An investigation will be made on the possible reasons why lead poisoning is a worse in developing countries compared to the developed countries. The different sources of lead poisoning will be tackled with emphasis on the reason why the mere banning of the use of leaded gasoline in automobiles is not enough to put a stop to this problem. Possible responses and solutions to this problem will be proposed for the purpose of controlling this problem in developing countries.

Lead Poisoning

Lead is a heavy metal which is naturally found in earth’s crust. It was first discovered in Asia Minor. It is an interesting piece of metal because it is malleable, has low melting point and has high corrosion resistance. The problem with lead, however, is that exposure to it by ingestion, inhalation, and absorption through the skin is highly poisonous and toxic. Although the concern for lead’s toxicity is not new, the response of different countries to this problem varies. So many centuries before wise men have warned us against the harmful effects of lead. Consider Vitruvius, Julius Caesar’s Engineer, who stated that: “Water is much more wholesome from earthenware pipes than from lead pipes. For it seems to be made injurious by lead because the white lead paint is produced from it; and this is said to be harmful to the human body.”

Today various researches have shown that low levels of exposure to lead have serious side effects, especially to children. Among the recognized side effects of lead poisoning are the reduction in IQ and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity and behavioral problems, impaired growth and visual and motor functioning and hearing loss. (“Childhood Lead Poisoning: Information for Advocacy and Action’) At high levels of exposure, lead poisoning in children may cause anemia, brain, liver, kidney, nerve and stomach damage, coma, convulsions, or even death. (“Childhood Lead Poisoning: Information for Advocacy and Action’)

Indeed, the problem of lead poisoning is a serious cause of concern for every country. Considering that lead is nonbiodegradable, it exists and will continue to exist not just in our soil, or in the air or in our drinking water but also in our homes. Lead poisoning affects people of all social and economic classes. Territorial and geographical boundaries will not be spared and countries in different regions of this world will be affected.

Kabwe Case Study

The problem of lead poisoning in developing countries is compounded and more complex. Consider the Kabwe case in Zambia, Africa. Kabwe was considered as one of the richest and largest land mines in African during the early part of the 20th Century because of the discovery of lead deposits in the area. As a result, mines were built and the people of Kabwe flocked to these mines. The result was a catastrophe for the people of Kabwe. It is now Africa’s most polluted city and the world’s fourth most polluted site. (“Zambia: Africa’s Most Toxic City”) Kabwe’s vegetation, soil, and water were heavily contaminated with highly poisonous and toxic lead. Since the mine started its operation, thousands of children and adults have been dying because of lead poisoning. The incidences of mental retardation, meningitis, and infertility in the town have reached alarming proportions.

What makes the situation worse is the lack of adequate intervention by the government in addressing this situation. There is no effort by the government to relocate or to help people change their means of livelihood. Likewise, there is no help coming from other stakeholders such as the private agencies. It bears stressing that it was only in last few years that the Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation had taken steps to educate the people of the dangers of lead poisoning. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the people of Kabwe have no other sources of living except by scavenging from the open quarries and old dump sites to look for metals, coal, and zinc. The poor nutrition also exacerbates the condition, making treatment more difficult, and increasing the effects of lead absorption. The people cannot abandon their only means of livelihood despite the dangers involved because there are no alternatives being provided by the government. The people cannot leave their houses because there is no relocation effort and they have no other places to go to.

The excessive attention and funds dedicated to the economic development and infrastructure projects have depleted the resources that should also be allocated to environmental concerns. Allocations in the budgets of developing countries are almost always concentrated on the control of the spread of communicable and infectious diseases totally forgetting the impact of lead poisoning in the lives of their people. It is sad to say that this problem is not properly addressed in developing countries. This lack of clear policy on environmental issues exists because of the excessive attention is given to the economic development and infrastructure projects in developing country. Though these programs on the improvement of the economy are important in the advancement of a developing country, environmental problems pose a significant obstacle to this goal. It is, therefore, important for developing countries to address these environmental issues simultaneously with its other policies and programs.

Sources of Lead Poisoning

One way stopping or controlling the problem of lead poisoning is to understand where it is coming from. Sources of lead poisoning have been reported to exist in both developed and developing countries. What is most noteworthy, however, is that despite the existence of the high risk of exposure lead poisoning, these countries differ in their response to this problem.

Use of Leaded Gasoline

One major source of lead poisoning in developing countries is the inhalation of vehicle fumes from cars which use leaded gasoline. It has been reported that around the world, about 830,000 people die every year from illnesses linked to exhaust fumes and industrial smog which engulf many cities of the Third World. Unlike a motor vehicle accident which usually happens in dramatic fashion and with blood flowing alongside the road, death by inhalation of vehicle fume from cars is less overt and dramatic but is just as dangerous. This is perhaps the reason why some countries are not finding the use of leaded gasoline a major source of concern.

The use of lead in gasoline first started in 1922 when car manufacturers realized that adding lead to gasoline helps boost its octane rating and produce more power. From that time, the use of lead in gasoline was briefly banned when 5 out of 49 workers of Standard Oil Company died and 35 experienced severe neurological symptoms from lead poisoning. Because of the dangers associated with the use of leaded gasoline, in 1994, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development called all governments to eliminate lead from gasoline. It was not until 1985 when U.S. EPA decided to implement the strict environmental policy of the phase-out of leaded gasoline that its effect was felt. It is said that from 1976 to 1990 the average blood lead levels (BLL) in the United States population declined from 14.5 to 2.8 micrograms per deciliter. The same effect happened in Mexico City when blood lead level concentrations in schoolchildren dropped from 16.5 to 11. 14 micrograms per deciliter in 1992 after it adopted a policy against the use of leaded gasoline.

The problem is that despite the effectiveness of regulating the use of leaded gasoline in developed countries like the United States, very few countries have expressed their intention to phase out leaded gasoline. Use of leaded gasoline is still very high in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Africa and Venezuela. Research shows that only thirteen countries have reduced their gasoline lead content to about 0.4 g/l and only six countries have phased out leaded gasoline altogether.

It is important to emphasize that though the use leaded gasoline is one of the major sources of lead poisoning it is however not the only source. Research has shown that the regulation or banning of the use of leaded gasoline will not have any significant effect unless coupled with the regulation of other sources of lead poisoning.

Use of Lead in Paints

It is said that one need not go out of the house to be exposed to lead poisoning. At home, one of the major sources of lead poisoning is the deteriorated lead paints. Lead was then added to paint is since it helped the paint dry more quickly and lead gave it a glossy and harder finishing. It was not until the 20th Century that the danger of lead in household paint was recognized. It was immediately banned in Australia in 1914 and by international convention in 1925. It was not until 1978 that a statute was passed banning lead in household paint.

Children are the ones more exposed to lead poisoning by means of lead paints since they have the tendency to take in their mouths foreign objects. Whey they crawl on the floor and they immediately spot an object their natural reaction is to put these things in their mouths. It is possible that the objects they take inside their mouth are paint chips that peel from the walls or roofs or the lead-laden dust from the deteriorating lead paint. They also have the tendency to bite and suck on the painted window sills of their house as they look outside. It is also possible that when they crawl inside the house the dust that they get also may have lead. There have also been cases of lead poisoning arising from improper housing renovation. Research shows that the sanding, scraping or removing lead paint with a heat gun has the effect of tainting the air with lead paint dust. (Dixie Farley p.2)

In developed countries like the United States, use of lead in paint has long been banned. Aside from the banning of lead in paint is that that the government has implemented certain programs that will respond to this problem. These government programs include: a) grant of housing programs to make homes lead safe; b) training of thousands of workers doing housing rehabilitation, remodeling, renovation, repainting and maintenance to help them do their work in a lead-safe way; c) licensing of inspectors and abatement contractors; d) compliance with and enforcement of lead safety laws. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development now require owners of houses built before 1978 to give prospective buyers information on the potential risk for lead poisoning. These safety precautions and prevention measures are lacking in developing countries.

Occupational Hazards

Research has shown that some occupations have higher risk of exposure to lead poisoning. These occupations include those working in battery recycling factories which is considered as a lead-based industry. There was an actual case involving a 44 year old man who started working in a battery-recycling unit at the age of 10. Studies show that he routinely handled molten lead without a mask and had meals in the workplace without washing his hands. He also admitted to have slept in the same place without changing his clothes. Diagnosis revealed that he has a five-year history of pain in the joints and epigastrium. The doctors advised the patient to change his occupation but due to economic constraints and lack of employment opportunities in his country, the patient continues in the same line of work. (G. Menezes, H. S. D’souza and T. Venkatesh)

It was also found that those working in the cottage ceramic industry have a higher risk of exposure to lead poisoning. Studies show that most of the women who worked in this industry were barren and that the children born to these women were short-lived.

In developed countries like the United States, the problem of occupational hazard is less compared to that of developing countries. In developing countries, the people have no actual awareness of the risks of lead poisoning. Further, even if they are aware of the hazards of their occupation, they have no other available options but to continue in the same line of work. Their government cannot provide them with other alternatives. We add to this problem the possibility that these cottage industries are placed in densely-populated areas making the children very vulnerable to lead poisoning. It was found out that the workers in cottage industries can actually contaminate their family members with lead that they carry on their body, clothes and shoes. In developing countries, these occupations are not regulated and there is little monitoring on the incidence of lead poisoning. The environmental policy against lead poisoning is usually lacking in these countries.

Traditional or Folk Remedies

The culture of a country may be a contributory cause to lead poisoning. Traditional or Folk remedies used for curing various illnesses are also significant sources of lead poisoning. These folk remedies may come from various countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Tibet, China and Latin America. Famous within the Hispanic community are Azarcon and Greta which are bright colored powders often used in cases of intestinal illness or empacho. Azarcon and Greta contain almost 100% lead. Pay-loo-ah is a red power which contains a high level of lead is often used for rash or fever. Some of the other remedies that are considered high risk for lead poisoning are Alarcon, alcohol, Bali gold, coral, glia sard, kohl, like, rude, Koo Sar pills, and sure.

Considering the lack of formal education and the lack of financial resources, the problem of lead poisoning is much worse in developing countries. A majority of the people in developing countries rely mostly on traditional remedies since most of the time they cannot afford to go to a doctor and take the regular medicines as they may cost very high. The lack of financial capacity to go to a doctor and purchase regular medicines force the people in developing countries to resort to traditional remedies to cure their illnesses. The government’s lack of resources in conducting awareness programs on the dangers of using these traditional remedies exacerbates the decision. On the other hand, there is less concern for lead poisoning exposure in developed countries like the United States.

Use of Cosmetics

Lead may also be found in imported cosmetics such as Kohl which comes from Middle East, India, Pakistan and some parts of Africa, and India. As the people search for cheaper cosmetic products, they are most likely to purchase cosmetics which contain high levels lead. Consider Kohl which is used as the eyeliner that can contain up to 83% lead. The lack of awareness in developing countries also tends to make this problem even worse

Unsafe Drinking Water System

It is said that drinking water may also be a possible source of lead poisoning. Research shows that the use of lead pipes, brass plumbing with lead can cause a chemical reaction releasing lead into the tap water. Because of the discovery of the danger of using lead pipes in the water system, the US Congress restricted the use of lead in pipes, solder and other components in the public water system. The problem is worse in developing countries since most of these countries still lack the awareness that the drinking water system may be a source of lead poisoning.

Imported Canned Goods

Studies show that imported canned food can be a source of lead poisoning. Manufacturers of canned goods outside the United States may use lead soldiers in its processing of its canned goods. These canned goods are then sold in various markets, usually by the door to door vendors. Upon discovery of high-risk exposure to lead poisoning in canned goods, the United States has banned the use of lead solder for sealing food cans. It has also been very careful in monitoring the goods that enter its territory.

Developing countries are more vulnerable to exposure to lead poisoning by imported canned goods. The lack of efficient regulation in the products that are imported from other countries makes it susceptible to the possibility that these canned goods may enter the country undetected.

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