Public health, environmental and social determinants of health (PHE)

International lead poisoning prevention week of action

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Today the World Health Organization marks for the first year the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action with the theme “lead free kids for a healthy future”. Our focus will be on the devastating health consequences of lead on the human health and in particular on our children. The campaign week runs 20-26 October with the aim to boost global awareness and to call on thousands of activities to take place and to urge countries to take further action to eliminate lead paint.

Lead exposure accounts for 143 000 deaths per year with the highest burden in developing regions. Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year. Overall, 99% of children affected by high exposure to lead live in low and middle income countries.

The toxicity of lead has been known for centuries. It is only in the last few decades that the profound effects of even low-level exposure to lead on the development of young children and on the long-term health of adults has been recognised.

We now believe that there is no safe threshold of exposure to lead. It is a problem that demands urgent action.

At high levels of exposure, lead damages the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death. Children who survive such poisoning are often left with intellectual impairment and behavioural disruption.

At lower levels of exposure, that cause no obvious symptoms and that previously were considered safe, lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems. In particular lead affects brain development in children, resulting in reduced IQ, behavioural changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behaviour, and reduced educational attainment. These effects are believed to be irreversible. Adults are at increased risk of kidney disease and raised blood pressure.

The good news is that lead poisoning is entirely preventable through a range of measures to restrict uses of lead and to monitor and manage exposures. The phasing out of leaded gasoline has already reduced lead exposure at the population level. Some important sources of lead still remain, however, and one of these is lead paint.

We are calling on every country to ensure national actions to eliminate lead paint. In some of the countries where there have been public information campaigns about lead paint, several paint manufacturers have taken voluntary action to stop adding lead compounds to their decorative paints.

WHO is working to bolster efforts to eliminate lead paint.

Globally about 30 countries have already phased out the use of lead paint. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by WHO and UNEP, has set a goal to eliminate lead paint by 2020, with a target of 70 countries by 2015.

This can be done.

In doing so we are paving the way to protecting our health, our children and safeguarding our environment .