Doctors have expressed concern with the steadily increasing use of the heavy metal in consumer products.
A World Health Organization (WHO) finds some 120 million people overexposed to lead, 99 percent of whom are in developing countries. An American environmentalist described lead poisoning as “an epidemic completely preventable without waiting for new technologies or treatment.”
In Wednesday’s forum “MISLEAD: Lead Contamination in Children,” organized by the Philippine Pediatric Society (PPS), Dr. Visitacion Antonio, the East Avenue Medical Center toxicologist, stressed that “Lead should not be in our system.”
Antonio revealed that majority of those affected by lead poisoning or elevated blood lead levels were usually children aged six years old and below.
She explained that children have become most susceptible to lead poisoning because they basically, “drink more water, eat more food and take in more air.” Most children are prone to “hand-to-mouth” activity, which result in their ingestion of lead-tainted paint chips or even dust, according to Antonio.
Lead poisoning is critical particularly when children are exposed to the heavy metal in their brain development stage.
“Our concern is the neurologic effect of lead. It affects the brain, thus the performance of children in school, their growth and development, and their hearing. At levels more than 70 micrograms per deciliter, they may even develop encephalopathy,” Antonio said, emphasizing that there is no safe level of exposure for kids.
Encephalopathy is a syndrome, which may involve permanent and degenerative brain damage caused by direct injury to the brain or a remote illness in other parts of the body. It may be reversible when caused by nutritional deficiency or toxins.
The toxicologist said that acute or direct exposure to lead would present gastro-intestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea. She added that 90 percent of lead would staylonger by as much as 25 years in a child’s bones than in the soft tissues and blood.
Dr. Edwin Rodriguez, the University of Santo Tomas Hospital hematologist said, “Lead as a toxicant is cumulative in children.”
When lead is introduced to a child’s system, the heavy metal destroys red blood cells and obstructs the development of hemoglobin causing anemia, according to Rodriguez. “Lead is an antagonist of iron,” he explained, saying that iron helps produce the red blood cells.
Rodriguez said that the only treatment for lead poisoning would be chelation, which would require the introduction of another heavy metal to bind lead. He stressed that the way to go would be through primary prevention such as regular washing and healthier food.
Meanwhile, Perry Gottesfeld, the Occupational Knowledge International executive director and public health consultant to the Ecowaste Coalition, described lead as a growing threat and the “most significant enviornmental health threat.”
He called for primary prevention rather than responding after the fact of lead poisoning.
“We can no longer afford to waste time. We need to take action before they (children) are exposed to lead,” Gottesfeld said, pointing out that the rate of globally mined lead products from 1995 to 2011 posted an increase of 66 percent.
He cited the growth of the sales in the Asia-Pacific Region of lead-tainted paint, commonly used in houses, schools and daycare facilities.
It meant, he said, that children would be 10 times more likely to be exposed to lead through dust and 20 times susceptible to poisoning from the heavy metal in their own homes.
Gottesfeld called on paint companies to reformulate their products and stop adding lead, pointing out that there are alternatives they could use as an ingredient.