What do your daughter’s trinkets, your son’s toy cars, your mother’s Ganesha idol, the spices in your kitchen, the paint on your walls and Holi colors have in common?
The quick and easy answer – they are all bright, shiny and attractive for the wearer, player, worshipper, eater, resident and merrymaker. The not-so-well-known answer: lead (Pb), which adds the shine and color to most colorful things in our lives. Lead is a metal found in the earth’s crust and is extensively used in paints, petrol, battery industry and other coloring agents.
So what is the problem with lead?
Lead poisoning, also known as saturnism or plumbism or painter’s colic, is caused by higher-than-normal blood levels of the metal lead (Pb). It can induce brain, kidney, stomach, heart, hearing, muscle and fertility damage. In growing children, Pb poisoning causes low IQ, hyperactivity, attention deficit, learning disabilities and anaemia. Women with high blood Pb levels develop early osteoporosis, lower backache, joint pain and persistent anaemia.
At 5mcg/dL Pb is classified as ‘dangerous’ and at 10mcg/dL, it is known to cause ‘permanent damage’.
A 2003-2006 study report from Chennai about 814 children between 3-7 years, showed that children with Pb poisoning scored low on hand-eye coordination tests.
In a recent interview, Dr Venkatesh Thuppil, an expert on Pb poisoning in India explained that Pb is taken into the body via lungs, intestine and skin. Pb is stored in red blood cells (RBCs), kidneys, bones plus other organs and is difficult to remove from the brain.
How do we obtain higher than normal Pb in our blood?
Major sources of blood Pb include leaded contaminated soil, drinking water, petrol emissions, household dust, battery recycling, silver refining, paints (especially yellow), pigments, printing presses, ceramic pottery glazes, cosmetics, colours (including kumkum,sindoor, spices and Holi colours), children’s toys (crayons and painted pencils), plant foods and traditional medicines. Pb poisoning cases in young children are high because of licking or eating Pb-containing paint when it is peeling off the walls or toys. Pb from a mother’s blood can pass to the fetus during pregnancy, possibly giving rise to genetic disorders.
Proof for lead overload is mounting
The George Foundation, a pioneer in spreading lead poisoning awareness, examined nearly 22,000 samples of children, pregnant women and workers in the battery and paint industries. The PbB (lead in blood) for 50% children under 12 years revealed ≥10 micrograms/100ml of blood Pb (mcg/dL). Lead poisoning is so alarming in Bangalore that it is in danger of being renamed as ‘the Lead City’.
Over the years, high levels of Pb have been discovered in samples of cultural powders (e.g. sindoor), spices (e.g. chilli powder), children’s products (e.g. playground structures), wall paints, soil and water. Exposure to Pb through multiple sources builds up in the body to reach toxic levels.
At low levels, lead poisoning is treatable
Eat a diet rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C – since these micronutrients reduce the concentration of Pb in the body. For severe cases of long-term lead exposure, chelating agents are used to bind Pb which is excreted in urine. Recent experiments, in rats, suggest green tea may also lessen Pb-induced neurotoxicity.
The best course of action is to reduce Pb exposure
To minimize lead exposure in children do the following. Supervise young children during play time and teach them to wash hands after playing and using pencils. Do not boil water excessively since it increases Pb concentration in water. Aluminium cans and vessels contain Pb, so avoid cooking or eating from them.
Reducing environmental exposure includes using Pb-free paints such as ICI Paints or AURO Natural Paints. Bring home eco-friendly idols, art and craft products.
In recent years National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning Prevention in India (NRCLPI) has initiated awareness campaigns by consulting with lead-based industries to reduce lead contamination, educating children via school teachers and sample testing soil, ayurvedic medicines plus cosmetics for Pb content.
NRCLPI conducts 16 lead clinics in India to serve as self-monitoring systems that reduce lead exposure and effects of lead poisoning. A sign of the global-level seriousness of this issue is indicated by NRCLPI’s new initiative, in association with Quality Council of India (QCI), to establish lead clinics across 6 developing countries.
Policy level changes are required to monitor and uphold Pb guidelines
You can also sign a Toxics Links petition to the Prime Minister, on behalf of Indian citizens, to make paint lead-free. http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/eliminate-lead-from-paints.html.