We are all at risk of being poisoned by lead, however, our most vulnerable in the society, our children are at a greater risk of being exposed and affected by lead poisoning. The curious and free spirited sense of adventure in children put them at the fore for exposure to lead poisoning. Disturbingly, in many instances our children are not adequately supervised and they are left to explore, touch and taste all that they come into contact with including lead-coated objects. Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the widespread use of lead has resulted in extensive environmental contamination and significant public health problems in many parts of the world. Once lead enters the body, it is distributed to organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. Interestingly, the body stores lead in teeth and bones where it accumulates over time. The WHO states that undernourished children are more susceptible to lead because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients, such as calcium, are lacking in their diet.
Long Term Impact of Lead Poisoning on Children
Many Jamaicans have a tendency to believe environmental matters are only issues which affect first world societies. We cannot underscore the responsibility of adults to safeguard the health and well being of our children. Exposure to lead can have extremely serious consequences on the health of our children. At high levels of exposure lead attacks the brain, and central nervous system. According to the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital website, exposure to lead can result in a variety of effects upon neuropsychological functioning including deficits in general intellectual functioning, ability to sustain attention on tasks, organization of thinking and behavior, speech articulation, language comprehension and production, learning and memory efficiency, fine motor skills and poor behavioural self-control. The same source states that the result of these neuropsychological deficits for the child is often rather debilitating and includes poor academic learning and performance. Research indicate that children who are survivors of severe lead poisoning maybe left with mental retardation and behavioural problems. Most medical studies conclude that lead poisoning affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), reduced attention span and increase anti-social behavior. According to research conducted by Dr. Aisha Dickerson, postdoctoral research fellow in the departments of Environmental Health and Epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, a number of toxic heavy metals are present in Jamaica’s soil, water and food especially in bauxite mining areas. These include arsenic, chromium, cadmium, zinc, copper, mercury, uranium and lead. According to studies, Lalor 1996; Johnson et al, 1996 the level of lead in Jamaican soil is more than four times the global average (44mg/kg compared to 10 mg/kg).
The Way Forward
As a society we need revisit the subject of recycling and disposal of waste, in particular the burring of waste, which releases dioxins and several heavy metals in the air. In many cases our response to these critical areas of recycling and waste disposal, put us at unnecessary risk to exposure to lead. Developing societies tend to ignore environmental matters for the sake of economic expansion and investment. However, we must realize that an unhealthy population will not be able to enjoy the successes of economic growth. More research on the long term impact of lead exposure from the local medical community is urgently needed, especially in light in the growing number of Jamaican children who are now being diagnosed with behavioural difficulties and learning challenges. It would be useful to know how many children die annually from the effects of lead poisoning in Jamaica and identify the areas of highest concentration of exposure of lead poisoning. A few years ago there was a major concern regarding lead in pencils and crayons used primarily by children. There is an urgent need for the society to conduct a study on the areas surrounding the landfill at Riverton City as well as other landfills to ascertain the impact if any of lead poisoning on those children. This is critical since much of the lead in global commerce is obtain from recycling. We should be mindful that lead can be found in paints as well as in crayons and pencil.
We need to safeguard the future of our country by ensuring that our children are protected from exposure to lead poisoning. Exposure to lead also impacts the health of adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Pregnant women are also at risk for miscarriages, premature birth and stillbirth from exposure to lead poisoning. Exposure to lead poisoning is clearly a public health concern and the necessary resources must be found to tackle this problem. The society needs to formulate guidelines on the prevention and management of lead poisoning. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), lead exposure in 2013 accounted for 853,000 deaths, with the highest burden on low and middle income countries; this is unacceptable especially since lead poisoning is entirely preventable. We need to raise the awareness of exposure to lead poisoning to highlight the dangerous and often irreversible effects of lead poisoning. The health of a nation is paramount to the growth and development of that society. We should therefore be mindful that Goal 3, of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG’s) speaks to ensuring healthy lives and the promotion of the well-being for all at all ages. There cannot be sustainable development without a healthy population. In the words of Nelson Mandela, there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
Emma Lewis is a writer and social activist