Back in January, The PediaBlog spent a week examining lead — where it comes from, how children and adults can be exposed to it indoors and outdoors, how it permanently injures the brains of growing children and stunts their cognitive and social development, and how environmental exposure to lead can be prevented (here and here). We also peeked at the horror show residents of Flint, Michigan have been living in for the past two years. Since news of Flint’s nightmare seems to have quickly been pushed off the front pages, Michael Martinez provides this update on the drinking water situation:

Lead levels in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, are “much, much, better,” said the research group that initially identified the contamination.

New test results on lead in Flint water are “much, much, better than when we measured the water back in August, and children were getting elevated blood lead from drinking the lead contaminated water,” Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards said Friday.

 

Flint’s water crisis has prompted other communities around the country to evaluate the safety of their water supplies in regards to potential lead exposure. But Justin Worland reports that the problem Americans face, as big as it is, just represents “the tip of the iceberg” when seen from a global perspective:

Contamination from the toxic metal contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and leads to developmental problems in hundreds of thousands more. And while the U.S. and countries in Europe have taken meaningful steps to address lead poisoning over the years, dozens of other countries across the globe have failed to do anything meaningful to protect their most vulnerable populations.

“The problem in the U.S. is serious,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, who did pioneering research in the 1970s on the health effects of lead. “But numerically it’s overshadowed by the global problem.”

 

Poor countries face the greatest challenges with preventing lead poisoning in their populations. In addition to old, chipping lead-based paint and leached lead from the pipes of old and decaying water systems, other sources of lead exposure increase the lead burden in highly-exposed countries like Mexico, India, and The Philippines. One source comes from lead-glazed ceramic bowls and dishes commonly used in food service in these countries. Another, more important source of lead exposure in Third World nations:

The most significant contributor to the problem of global lead poisoning is likely car battery recycling, according to anti-pollution NGO Pure Earth. The group has identified 800 sites in the developing world that have large facilities devoted to extracting lead and other valuable metals from reclaimed car batteries for resale. In part because facilities aren’t built to adequate environmental standards, lead then enters the surrounding soil and environment where it may be ingested or inhaled by local populations. In some areas, unemployed people salvage lead from cheap car batteries in their own homes—sometimes in the kitchen just feet away from food preparation—and backyards as an easy source of income.

 

In Flint, Michigan, public pressure will force politicians, policy makers, and taxpayers to eventually pay a steep price: replace the entire corroding water system with new pipes. Similar action will most likely not occur in poorer countries with less transparent politics and even fewer resources. Still, Worland says, improvements now won’t help the already-exposed later:

… [G]etting rid of lead in the environment does little to help the hundreds of thousands of people who struggle with developmental disorders as a result of their previous exposure to lead. Research has shown that lead increases violent crime in societies with high levels of exposure. Lead may leave other children mentally retarded or result in a reduced IQ, according to the World Health Organization. Those results are devastating for parents whose children may struggle to function in society for their entire lives. In aggregate, the poisoning means some communities may be left with entire generations that struggle to function.

 

 

Read The PediaBlog’s series on lead in children beginning here.

 

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