Children's environmental health

Chemical hazards

Lead

Children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead: relatively low levels of exposure can reduce IQ scores, and cause learning disabilities, poor school performance, or violent behaviour, and result in reduced lifetime earnings. This has economic and social consequences for society as a whole. In certain developing regions of the world, more than one third of all children are still affected by high levels of lead. Cases of acute poisoning are still observed and in severe cases, life-threatening encephalitis which ends up in death or irreversible neurological sequelae. In developed countries, only a small minority of children are affected by high lead exposures, mainly the urban poor. Focused action aimed at prevention of exposure is essential. The main sources of exposure may vary according to local context, and lead-health interactions can be complex, as shown in the diagram.

lead contamination routes

Taking action

Sources of exposure vary according to local context, e.g. lead in gasoline and paint, in glazed ceramics, in emissions from smelters, in battery recycling industries, use of lead pipes for water supply, or a contaminant in food or an ingredient in traditional medicines. A number of activities are being undertaken, including awareness-raising, preparation of study protocols and documents on lead exposure, estimation of the global burden of disease (GBD), and provision of technical advice to countries on a case-by-case basis. Focused action aimed at prevention of exposure is essential and efforts to reduce lead exposure have to be intensified in the light of the large percentage of children in the world who are affected.

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