29 October 2021 | Science conversation
How big a public health problem is lead poisoning? What are the sources of lead poisoning and who are at risk? What can you do to protect yourself? WHO's Lesley Onyon explains in Science in 5 this week.
We are talking
about preventing lead poisoning today. Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm
Vismita Gupta-Smith and these are WHO's conversations in science. We are
talking to Lesley Onyon today. Welcome, Lesley. Lesley, explain to us exactly
how big a public health problem is lead poisoning and who are the people at
Well, thank you
for the invitation Vismita. Lead has a long and dark history and the knowledge
of the effects of lead go back as far as Roman and Greek times. So almost 5,000
years. Today, WHO estimates that almost one million people die from the effects
of lead exposure. We are all potentially at risk from exposure to lead but
there are three groups we are particularly concerned about, and these are
children under five years of age, pregnant and lactating mothers and adults who
are occupationally exposed. The effects of
lead can often go unrecognized because they can be insidious and fairly mild,
such as anemia, constipation, abdominal cramps. However, it is the neurological
effects that we are most concerned about and particularly those affecting
children. So, the neurological effects themselves can range in severity from
irritable behavior, clumsiness, right through to more serious, life-threatening
neurological diseases and effects such as encephalopathy and coma, convulsions
and death. Adults are also
affected, particularly cardiovascular diseases and renal diseases. These are
affecting occupational groups in particular. Exposure to lead is often not
serious in an acute incident, but the repeated exposure at low levels can give
rise to these severe neurological impacts that last a lifetime.
to us the sources of lead poisoning around us.
There are a large
number of sources of potential lead exposure. We already have taken action on a
number of these. For example, the outlawing of leaded petrol, the controls on
use of leaded water pipes for drinking water and so on. But there are still
many other sources: leaded paints, the use of lead in decorative and household
paints is a concern. But there are a variety of other sources too. We still can
find lead in drinking water and food. It is found in some traditional medicines
and cosmetics and in other household sources and glazed pottery and so on. The
mouthing of objects containing lead is a particular danger for children. Small
objects such as fishing weights and curtain weights can easily be swallowed and
then have a lasting effect once remaining in the body. But there's also the
mouthing of amulets and toy jewelry and so on. A particular growing source of
lead exposure comes from the recycling of lead acid batteries and these are a
growing need in our society, whether it be for electric vehicles, whether it be
for small scale uninterrupted power supply. But the recycling of these
batteries is often done under very poor conditions, often within homes as a
sort of cottage industry in developing countries and therefore whole
communities and families can be affected.
Lesley, WHO and
partners are observing lead poisoning prevention week to raise awareness and
call for action to prevent lead poisoning. Why is this important even in the
midst of a pandemic?
Well, in the
pandemic, we often find people spending more time at home than they had done
before and obviously if their home is contaminated through the presence of lead
containing paint that can be causing dust inside the house. But also, people
might want to get engaged in hobbies which involve exposure to lead such as
soldering of electronics or making ceramics with glazes or oil painting because
oil paint still can contain lead. So, there is often an increased hazard if
spending more time in these contaminated environments.
What can people do
to prevent lead poisoning?
There are a number
of things that people can do to prevent lead poisoning. I think in terms of the
issue of lead paint, you could check to see whether your house contains lead
paint before embarking in any major renovation projects, avoiding cheap,
brightly coloured toys, jewelry and other things that children can put in their
mouths, potentially swallow. Also important would be to store food and drink in
preferably glass containers, certainly to not store food in tins that can have
solder inside them containing lead. I know that it is sort of common practice
to reuse plastic containers these days, but sometimes these plastic containers
can come from lead acid batteries and other sources, so be very careful there.
Finally, talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns.
Thank you, Lesley. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time, then stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.