Lead poisoning can cause cognitive impairment for children, such as memory loss and an IQ decrease.
Rabat – Approximately one-third of the world’s children — up to 800 million children in total — have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter, a recent report from UNICEF and NGO Pure Earth has revealed.
Five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is the level at which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires intervention. It is also the level at which the World Health Organization associates symptoms such as decreased intelligence in children, behavioral problems, and learning difficulties.
UNICEF announced the results of the report in a press release issued on Thursday, July 30.
“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“Knowing how widespread lead pollution is must inspire urgent action to protect children once and for all,” she added.
Dangers of lead exposure
According to medical studies, lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreparable harm to children’s brains. It is particularly harmful to infants and children aged below five because it damages their brains before they fully develop.
Lead poisoning can cause lifelong neurological, cognitive, and physical impairment. Studies have also linked childhood lead exposure to mental health and behavioral problems, including an increased proneness to crime and violence.
According to the report, informal recycling of lead-acid batteries, mainly used in driving vehicles, is a leading contributor to lead poisoning in children in low and middle-income countries.
In most low and middle-income countries, the increase in vehicle ownership in the past decades was not combined with an improvement in battery recycling regulations and infrastructure.
The report also revealed that 50% of lead-acid batteries in the world are recycled informally.
“Workers in dangerous and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases, spill acid and lead dust in the soil, and smelt the recovered lead in crude, open-air furnaces that emit toxic fumes poisoning the surrounding community,” UNICEF’s press release said.
Other sources of lead poisoning are polluted waters due to the use of leaded pipes, lead from active industry such as mining, lead-based paints and pigments, and leaded gasoline.
The report highlighted a contrast in lead exposure statistics between high-income countries and poorer states. The difference is mainly due to the phase-out of leaded gasoline and lead-based paints in high-income countries.
The study provides a series of recommendations for governments to address lead exposure among children. The recommendations include monitoring and reporting systems; prevention and control measures; management, treatment, and remediation; public awareness and behavior change; legislation and policy; as well as global and regional action.
Lead pollution in Morocco
While the report states that nearly half of the children exposed to lead live in South Asia, lead exposure is also a worrying issue in Morocco.
In 1996, a study by the National Institute of Hygiene revealed that the two main sources of lead pollution in Morocco are urban traffic, due to the use of leaded gasoline, and pottery, which requires the usage of powder with high lead concentration.
Regarding lead pollution in drinking waters, the study revealed a correlation between the concentration of lead in waters and the age of water pipes. In the cities of Nador, Oujda, and Taza, drinking waters contained on average 6.5 micrograms of lead per liter. The figure is below WHO’s safety limit of 10 micrograms per liter.
However, other cities such as Casablanca, Tangier, and Agadir, with older drinking water systems, recorded an average lead concentration of 28 micrograms per liter.
While the old study presented alarming figures, Morocco has made noticeable strides in its fight against lead pollution in the past two decades. The country currently has many legal texts aiming to limit lead exposure and protect the health of citizens.
Law 24-09 relating to the safety of products regulates the use of lead in children’s toys, pencils and marker pens, as well as textile and clothing products.
Decree 2-12-431, issued in November 2013, enforces regulations of lead usage in the industrial sector. It aims to protect workers through banning the use of lead in paints and limiting the element’s usage in other fields.
On the international level, Morocco has ratified the 13th convention of the International Labor Organization. The agreement bans the use of lead carbonate, used in white paints.