Lead paint found on toys and furniture creates contaminated dust

The World Health Organisation on Friday warned against devastating health consequences of lead poisoning, particularly for children, and called upon countries to strengthen national action to eliminate lead paint.

Lead exposure is estimated to contribute to 6,00,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year, it says.

Overall, 99 per cent of the affected children live in low and middle income countries, the WHO said in a statement on the occasion of International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action.

Lead paint may be found in home, on toys, furniture and on other objects. Decaying lead paint on walls, furniture and other interior surfaces creates contaminated dust that young children easily ingest. Mouthing lead-painted toys and other objects also exposes them to lead. The sweet taste of the paint means some children even pick off and swallow small chips of it.

The flashpoint

“Lead poisoning remains one of the most important environmental health concerns for children globally, and lead paint is a major flashpoint…” says WHO Director for Public Health and Environment Maria Neira. However, the good news is that exposure to lead paint can be “entirely stopped through a range of measures to restrict” its production and use.

Major cause

It is estimated that 1,43,000 deaths every year result from lead poisoning and lead paint is a major contributor. Its use creates a health problem for many years into the future. Even in countries that have banned leaded paint decades ago, it will continue to be a source of exposure until it is finally stripped and replaced. The cost of replacing lead paint means people living in older, poorly maintained housing are particularly at risk, and this disproportionately affects economically-deprived communities.

Worldwide, 30 countries have already phased out lead paint use. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by the WHO and the United Nations Environment Programme, has set a target of 70 countries by 2015.

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

At lower levels of exposure, which cause no obvious symptoms and which were previously considered safe, lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems. In particular, lead affects brain development, 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 WHO has identified lead as one of the 10 chemicals causing major public health concern, and lead requires action by member-states in order to protect the health of workers, children and women of reproductive age. It includes adopting regulations and procedures to eliminate the use of lead decorative paints and providing information to the public on renovation of homes where lead paint may have already been applied.

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