26 May 2017 Story Chemicals & waste

‘Poisoning our Children for Nothing’

Call for global ban on the use of lead in paint by 2020 to prevent enormous economic losses and safeguard the health of future generations

At the start of the 18th Century a mysterious disease known as the “dry-gripes” or “dry-bellyache” tore through Europe and the American colonies. At the time, the heavy metal lead was used in many materials that came into direct contact with food and drinks, including drinks life rum. Unbeknown to America’s rum drinkers, their alcoholic beverages were often laced with lead, which was used in the cooling coils of stills.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, began to notice that rum triggered strange reactions among people who drunk the alcohol. Franklin wrote that the rum in New England “poison’d … people, giving them the dry belly-ache, with a loss of the use of their limbs”.

Franklin also observed that moss failed to grow on rooftops that were coated with lead paint. He wrote about a family who had been struck with “dry-bellyache” after drinking water collected from rooftops covered in lead paint. His keen observations linked lead to the devastating impact that the toxic heavy metal has on human health.

Shockingly, almost 300 years after Franklin made these observations, lead paint continues to plague many parts of the world. Health experts now know that, when ingested or inhaled, lead paint can accumulate in the soft tissues and bones, leading to nerve damage, muscle weakness, confusion and seizures.

Every year, there are roughly 600,000 new cases of lead poisoning. Children are among those who suffer the most from this deadly menace. Exposure can cause severe mental retardation, loss of IQ, anaemia, loss of attention and behavioural disorders that can damage a child for life.

The loss of IQ in children has an enormous economic cost, with low to middle income countries losing roughly $977 billion per year from lead poisoning. Africa loses $135 billion, Latin America $145 billion and Asia $700 billion.

“We are ruining the IQ of our future leaders,” said Walker Smith from the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) during a forum on lead paint that took place on Monday as the United Nations Environment Assembly kicked off in Nairobi. “Instead of changing the world for the better these children will become burdens for society.”

Walker, a member of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, which is chaired by the EPA, pointed out that there are alternative paints that do not use lead. “We are poisoning our children for nothing,” Smith said.

Sadly, it is still legal to sell lead paint in many countries around the world for decorating homes, schools and children’s toys.

Panelists at the forum urged governments to enact laws that ban the use of lead in paint. Countries that ban the toxic metal witness a major drop in the amount of lead in the blood of their populations.

The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint wants to see a global ban on the toxic heavy metal by 2020.

“This is a very solvable issue,” said Smith. “Lead paint is not an area where you can just raise awareness because most poor people do not control the kind of paint that’s in their house. They don’t control the amount of paint that’s in the houses of their friends or their children’s friends. The only way this can be prevented is with laws.”