Fighting Lead Poisoning – India’s Hidden Adversary
Lead is a heavy metal used extensively in car batteries, paints, hair dyes, solders, insecticides and as an anti-knocking additive in petrol. Its softness, malleability and resistance to corrosion make it an attractive choice for multiple industries. BUT lead is also extremely toxic to humans, even in trace amounts. Its negative impacts on health have been known for over a century, which is why its use in petrol has been banned in almost all countries. However, lead is non-biodegradable, meaning the toxic exhausts from automobiles before it was banned still exist in the environment, in the air, water, soil and as dust particles.
Also lead particles released during the mining of lead from galena, as well as the mining and processing of coal; unsafe recycling of lead -acid batteries; use in spices to increase their weight and colour; in paints; in cosmetics like kajal, surma and sindoor etc. continue to pollute the environment and pose a major health risk.
Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, since they ingest upto 4-5 times more lead from the same source as do adults. Additionally, their proximity to the ground when they start crawling and typical hand-to-mouth behaviour puts them more at risk. Children who are malnourished or have iron and calcium deficiencies absorb more lead than children who aren’t. Pregnant women, exposed to lead, can pass on the toxic metal to their foetuses.
Lead poisoning typically does not show any symptoms or occurs as a range of unrelated ones such as headaches, nausea, pain in the abdomen or joints, fatigue, irritability etc – making it that much harder to diagnose.
Low levels of chronic lead exposure can lead to cognitive impairments in children, which leads to reduced intelligence quotient, reduced attention span and educational attainment as well as increased anti-social behaviour. At high levels, it can cause coma, convulsions and even death. It also causes anaemia, renal impairment, hypertension etc. The neurological and behavioural effects are considered irreversible and permanent.
In adults, lead poisoning causes increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular issues and kidney damage. In pregnant women, it can lead to miscarriage, still birth, premature birth and low birth weight.
A 2020 report by UNICEF and Pure Earth claimed 275 million Indian children (0-19 years of age) have a blood lead level (BLL) over 5 µg/dl, i.e. the threshold for intervention identified by WHO. A NITI-Aayog – CSIR-NEERI study reviewed this report and analysed 36 studies from 1970 – 2014. They found that average BLLs in 23 states in India are well above 5 µg/dl, which corroborates the findings of the UNICEF report.
Unfortunately, very little research has been done in India on lead poisoning, making it much harder to understand the extent of the problem. The few studies that have been done use small simple sizes which are not statistically significant and employ experimental methods which do not allow for scientific validation, thus calling their credibility into question.
It is not only in the academic community that lead has been paid scant attention to, even the general public has very little awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning and how to protect themselves and their children from it.
To spotlight this oft-overlooked issue, Pahle India Foundation in collaboration with Center for Global Development, Pure Earth and Asian Development Bank, convened a High-Level Roundtable on ‘A World Free of Lead Poisoning’ in New Delhi on April 25th. The event was graced by the Health Secretary, Shri Rajesh Bhushan and co-chaired by Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Chairman, PIF and Former Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog and Ms. Rachel Silverman Bonnifield, Senior Fellow, CGD. Dr. Thuppil Venkatesh, Chairman of Indian Society for Lead Awareness and Research (InSLAR), popularly known as the Lead Man of India, scientists from ICMR-NIREH and ICMR-NIOH, representatives from the World Bank, UNICEF and other health, research and policy institutes participated.
The two hour session saw various dimensions of the lead poisoning epidemic discussed as well as many practical recommendations and next steps that India can take to tackle it. The conference received wide-spread coverage in the Economic Times, The Print, The Week, PSU Watch as well as in international newspapers.
Post the Conference, Pahle India Foundation and Pure Earth came together to set up the India Working Group (IWG) on Lead Poisoning, chaired by Dr. Indu Bhushan, Distinguished Fellow, PIF and Former CEO, Ayushman Bharat and with India’s senior-most doctors, scientists and public health professionals as members. The IWG held its first meeting in New Delhi on 13th September and together came up with concrete action points, to broaden the research base and available data for lead poisoning as well as increase awareness.