High lead exposure causing intellectual disability in Indian children: study

Image for representational purposes only

Image for representational purposes only   | Photo Credit: H.Vibhu

At low levels, one microgrammes per deciLitre of lead contamination in the blood causes more than half a point of IQ decrement

High levels of lead contamination in the blood of children may have a significant impact in lowering their IQ and increasing the risk of other diseases, a study has found.

Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia conducted the first ever meta-analysis of lead levels in the blood of children living in India. They found the burden of disease to be significantly larger than previously calculated, with negative outcomes on intellectual disability measures in children.

The research calculated the pooled mean blood lead level from data published between 2010 to 2018 to estimate the attributable disease burden in IQ decrement and Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). The DALY is a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill health, disability, and early death.

Previous studies have estimated 4.6 million lead-attributed DALYs and nearly 165,000 deaths. The new study found that the total could be as high as 4.9 million DALYs, or, in other words, 4.9 million years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death as a result of the high blood lead levels.

At low levels, one microgrammes per deciLitre of lead contamination in the blood causes more than half a point of IQ decrement. For children living in India, whose blood lead level is at almost 7 microgrammes per deciLitre, the impact on IQ is significant, said Bret Ericson, first author of the paper published in Environment International. “At a societal level, the bell curve of IQ shifts to the left, with more people falling into the intellectually disabled category, and far fewer in the gifted category. The potential impacts on a country’s productivity and associated disease burden are, therefore, significant,” Ericson said.

Battery smelting and lead contamination

India’s significantly elevated blood lead levels can in part, be attributed to battery smelting, which is poorly regulated in India, researchers said.

“Given that a large number of people ride motorbikes or drive cars, and that the battery life is only two years, there are a significant number of used lead batteries recycled each year,” said Ericson. “These are often processed informally with little or no pollution controls, resulting in significant contamination across urban areas.”

However, there are also other known causes of exposure, including ayurvedic medicines, eyeliner, noodles and spices, which continue to cause the high levels of blood lead found in children, researchers said.

Identification of sources

The implications of exposure are extremely detrimental, and with no evidence that the adverse outcomes remit with age, is calling for better regulation, said Mark Taylor of Macquarie University.

“We’ve identified a number of areas of exposure, but more work needs to be done to further determine the exact source, or sources, of the problem,” said Taylor. “There also needs to be better regulation and centralisation of battery smelting to combat preventable contamination.”

Chronic low lead exposure has also been associated with cognitive impairment, cardiovascular disease, anemia, and low birth weight, and premature mortality.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 4:20:02 AM |

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