Fact Sheet: What is the #1 Childhood Environmental Health Threat Globally?

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“Lead Poisoning from improper automotive battery recycling activities is the number one childhood environmental health threat globally”.

—  Dr. Jack Caravanos, NYU Clinical Professor and Director of Research at Pure Earth.

While lead pollution can result from a number of activities, the improper recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULABs) is the leading source. Some experts believe it is the #1 childhood environmental health threat.

The informal recycling of used lead-acid batteries happens in every city in the developing world, often in small mom-and-pop operations with little or no regulations. Batteries are broken up by hand, often in backyards, and sometimes smelted in kitchens with children nearby.

Each lead-acid battery contains about 20 lbs of lead. The lead found in only 9 automobile batteries is enough to contaminate a standard size soccer field to a depth of 1 inch (2.5 cm) at the US EPA level of 400 ppm.

Children are most vulnerable victims of lead poisoning.

A mother in Senegal, used to recycle used lead-acid batteries. One by one, each of her five youngest children fell ill with the same symptoms — seizures and convulsions. One by one, they perished the same way, before the age of two. After her fifth child died, she began to suspect that her job was the cause.

Lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms as lead accumulates in the body over time.  Lead poisoning therefore frequently goes unrecognized.

Facts About Lead:

  • There is no known safe level of lead exposure.
  • The CDC lowered the level of concern from 10 to 5 µg/dL (micrograms /deciliter) as the point at which to trigger public health actions.
  • In the U.S., about 500,000 U.S. children are estimated to have a blood lead level of at least 5 µg/dL.
  • Average blood lead level in the U.S. is 1.8 µg/dL. In some of the world’s worst polluted places, we have found levels as high as 234 µg/dL in children.
  • Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to 600,000 new cases globally of children with intellectual disabilities every year.
  • Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143, 000 deaths per year, or 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions.
  • In a review of 242 studies of known chemically contaminated sites, lead was the primary contaminant in 57 (25%) studies, representing 8,345 exposed children.
  • Lead is the most common pollutant identified in the Pure Earth database of global polluted sites.
  • Lead poisoning can be treated and lead levels lowered, but damage caused from childhood lead poisoning is irreversible and permanent.
  • Lead exposure is entirely preventable.

Health Effects:

  • Lead is a potent neurotoxin, causing lower intellectual capacity, neurological damage, and cardiovascular disease, amongst other problems.
  • Children are the most vulnerable. Lead can affect nearly every system in a young developing body, in particular the brain and nervous system, with devastating and sometimes permanent health consequences.
  • The presence of lead in children lowers I.Q. by an estimated 4-7 points for each increase of 10 μg/dL.
  • In adults, lead poisoning can also lead to increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. In pregnant women, lead poisoning can cause miscarriage and stillbirths.

Sources of Toxic Lead:

  • Some experts believe that the improper recycling of used lead-acid batteries is the #1 childhood environmental health threat globally. Of the six million tons of lead that are used annually, approximately three quarters go into the production of lead-acid batteries. Of these batteries, 97% are eventually recycled to retrieve the lead.
  • Lead pollution can also be a result of mining, smelting, manufacturing and other activities, including the continued use of leaded paint and leaded gasoline in some countries.
  • The national lead poisoning problem in Mexico  can be traced to a 500-year old tradition of using lead-based glazes in pottery that is used to cook and serve food in many of the country’s homes and restaurants. (Fact Sheet:  Mexico’s 500-year-old problem)

Examples of Lead Problems and Cleanups:

  • In Armenia, our cleanup brought a toxic legacy at a 10th Century Armenian historic site to an end. The lead levels we found at the Apostolic church and monastery in Akhtala were the highest not only in the country, but possibly the world. The lead contamination had roots in the site’s history as a fortress in the 10th century, where metal works and weapon making took place on the grounds. Later, mining in the region deposited more polluted waste.
  • In Colombia, we cleaned up the community of Malambo, and also replaced lead-contaminated mattresses for about 100 children. A pair of siblings–Hilary, age 2, and Juan, age 4–were sharing a mattress that contained over 1300 ppm (parts per million) of lead, while three year-old Liz’s mattress measured 928 ppm of lead.
  • In Mexico, where many of the country’s 50,000 potters use toxic lead-based glazes, the average blood lead levels for children and their families in artisan communities is 26 to 40 µg/dL. Nationally, up to 20% of the population have high lead levels from the use of traditional leaded pottery in homes and restaurants. Pure Earth is training potters to switch to lead-free glazes, and to promote the use of lead-free pottery. Read the story of Baby X in Mexico.
  • In Colombia, we cleaned up the community of Malambo, and also replaced lead-contaminated mattresses for about 100 children. A pair of siblings–Hilary, age 2, and Juan, age 4–were sharing a mattress that contained over 1300 ppm (parts per million) of lead, while three year-old Liz’s mattress measured 928 ppm of lead.
  • In Nigeria, the high price of gold prompted a mini gold rush in 2010, and villagers took to mining the lead-rich ore. This resulted in the world’s worst outbreak of lead poisoning.  Over  400 children were killed.  Lead levels as high as 150µg/dL were recorded. (see Photos)

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