Element of mystery: Lead poisoning is a huge public health concern for India; here’s why

Source: The post is based on the article “Element of mystery: Lead poisoning is a huge public health concern for India; here’s why” published in Down To Earth on 17th February 2023

What is the News?

The widespread use of Lead has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world.

What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust.

Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb 4–5 times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source.

What are the sources of Lead Poisoning?

Lead Poisoning
Source: Niti Aayog

What is the impact of Lead Poisoning in India?

Children: According to a 2020 report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Pure Earth, half the children in India report high blood lead levels.

– Lead exposure can have serious consequences for the health of children. High levels of exposure to lead attack the brain and central nervous system, causing coma, convulsions and even death.

Disability-Adjusted Life Years: According to a 2016 analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), Lead toxicity in India contributes to 4.6 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (number of years lost due to disease burden) and 165,000 deaths annually.

Impact on Health: Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. 

– Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight.

What are the challenges in curbing Lead Poisoning?

In India, lead does not get as much attention as other potential public health concerns. 

This is because the country lacks systems to screen populations for possible exposure. India has some 48 national referral centres for lead projects where blood lead levels can be tested, but screening is usually done on a voluntary basis or at health camps by non-profits.

Even if screening occurs, determining the source of exposure is not easy. Moreover, poor implementation of safety norms also compounds the problem of Lead Poisoning.

What are the steps needed to be taken against Lead Poisoning?

Firstly, there are more than 20 occupations and household items that may be exposing people to high levels of lead, but research to even identify the geographical distribution of sources appears to be lacking.

– Regular screening and testing of lead sources will inform about region-wise prevalence and help tailor interventions.

Secondly, India must also enhance its capacity for testing, currently done for blood lead levels. This test only shows how much (lead) is present in circulating blood and not how much is stored in the body.

Thirdly, there are gaps in treatment protocols. CSIR underlines the need to train healthcare workers to monitor, detect and treat this condition.

Fourthly, there is a need for public awareness. Lead poisoning needs to be a part of the narrative of India’s health status. India needs to devise strategies on a state level, through regional bureaucracy, local press and vernacular language to have a tangible impact.

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