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Episode #60 - Lead poisoning prevention 

29 October 2021 | Science conversation

Summary

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. 

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

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 risk?

Lesley Onyon

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.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Lesley, describe to us the sources of lead poisoning around us.

Lesley Onyon

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.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

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?

Lesley Onyon

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.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

What can people do to prevent lead poisoning?

Lesley Onyon

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.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Lesley. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time, then stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science. 

 
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