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Global Lead Network: Facts about Childhood Lead Poisoning

Facts about Childhood Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is an environmental and public health hazard of global proportions. Children and adults in virtually every region of the world are being exposed to unsafe levels of lead in the environment, the home, the community, and the workplace.

  • Lead occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. When ingested or inhaled, it is highly toxic to humans of all ages. Lead’s toxicity has been known for thousands of years – Greek physicians made the first clinical description of lead poisoning in the first century B.C.
  • Lead is most hazardous to young children, whose still-developing brains and nervous systems are particularly vulnerable to lead. Low levels of exposure in children can produce permanent nervous system damage, including reduction in intelligence and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, and behavior problems. Very high levels of lead exposure can cause mental retardation, coma, convulsions, and death.
  • Worldwide, seven sources appear to account for the most significant population exposures to lead (not necessarily listed in order of magnitude): 1) gasoline additives; 2) food can solder; 3) lead-based paints; 4) ceramic glazes; 5) drinking water systems; 6) cosmetics and folk remedies; and 7) inadequately controlled industrial emissions.
  • Poor and disadvantaged populations are more vulnerable to lead poisoning because poor nourishment will increase the amount of ingested lead that is absorbed by the body, and because limited water supplies can hamper efforts to wash lead-contaminated dust or fallout off contaminated foodstuffs or out of living spaces. In addition, in many societies, the poor and disadvantaged are more likely to live in the vicinity of lead-polluting industries, and live in older, substandard housing, which is more likely to contain deteriorating lead-based paint and (as a result) lead-contaminated dust.
  • Women are also particularly vulnerable to lead because studies have shown that lead absorbed in the bones during a woman’s lifetime can be leached back into the blood during pregnancy (also exposing the fetus) and menopause.
  • Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. The link between identified sources of lead in the environment and human exposure is well known and well documented. The steps to prevent lead poisoning are clear – stop ongoing and unnecessary uses of lead in consumer products and abate lead hazards from the reservoir of past and dispersive uses. Workable control measures and substitute products exist for virtually all sources of lead.