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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Essay on the Problem of Lead Poisoning

The Problem of Lead Poisoning
I.  Introduction
            The Center for Disease Control once made a study on the different causes of disease and death.  Based on the study, the following are the leading causes of disease and death: 50 % is due to unhealthy life styles; 25 % is due to environment; 25% is due to innate biology; and 25% is due to inadequate health care (Herbert Needleman, n.d., p.1).  Considering the impact of environmental concerns on our health, it is indeed very crucial for environmental problems to be addressed.  It is not only a concern of a country but a global concern which affects every person living on Earth and even the next generations. 
            One environmental issue that must be addressed is the problem of lead poisoning.   Research shows that the problems of lead poisoning have reached an alarming stage, especially in developing countries.   According to the World Health Organization, it estimated that at least 15 to 18 Million children in developing countries suffer permanent brain damage because of lead poisoning (Y.P. Rajesh, 1999,  p.1).  In India, studies show that on the average over 50% of the children below the age of 12 years in urban environments in India had unacceptable blood levels of 10 mcg/dl or more.
In developed countries such as the United States, efforts have been made to address the problems of lead poisoning which formerly was one of its major concerns.  It was estimated that nearly one million children living in the United States have blood lead levels high enough to impair their ability to think, concentrate and learn (“Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning” 2000, p. 11).  Nowadays, there has been a sharp decline in the cases of lead poisoning in past years due to sustained government efforts to educate the public and publicize the dangers of lead (Ali Nawaz Khan, 2005, p. 13).
Yet the problem still exists.  Considering that lead poisoning can lead to adverse health problems on children and on adults – it is reported that exposure to lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral and learning problems, slow growth and hearing problems in children and reproductive problems, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorder, memory and concentration problems and muscle and joint pain.  In view of the health problems associated with exposure to lead poisoning, the National Referral Center for Lead Poisoning considers lead as the number one environmental poison amongst the toxic heavy metals all over the world causing serious health hazards to humans especially young children. 
This research paper is particularly interested with the problem of lead poisoning.  A discussion will be made on the extent of the lead poisoning problem in both the developed and developing Countries.  A short comparison will be made between the environmental policies of developed and developing countries as a response to this global problem.  This research aims to determine the reasons why there is a success in controlling this problem in developed countries such as the United States.  An investigation will be made on the possible reasons why lead poisoning is a worse in developing countries compared to the developed countries.  The different sources of lead poisoning will be tackled with emphasis on the reason why the mere banning of the use of leaded gasoline in automobiles is not enough to put a stop to this problem.   Possible responses and solutions to this problem will be proposed for the purpose of controlling this problem in developing countries.    

II. Lead Poisoning
            Lead is a heavy metal which is naturally found on earth’s crust.  It was first discovered in Asia Minor.  It is an interesting piece of metal because it is malleable, has low melting point and has high corrosion resistance.  The problem with lead, however, is that exposure to it by ingestion, inhalation and absorption through the skin is highly poisonous and toxic.   Although the concern for lead’s toxicity is not new, the response of different countries to this problem varies. 
Today various researches have shown that low levels of exposure to lead have serious side effects, especially to children.  Among the recognized side effects of lead poisoning are reduction in IQ and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity and behavioral problems, impaired growth and visual and motor functioning and hearing loss.  At high levels of exposure lead poisoning in children may cause anemia, brain, liver, kidney, nerve and stomach damage, coma, convulsions, or even death.
Indeed, the problem of lead poisoning is a serious cause of concern for every country.  Considering that lead is non biodegradable, it exists and will continue to exist not just in our soil, or in the air or in our drinking water but also in our homes.  Lead poisoning affects people of all social and economic classes.  Territorial and geographical boundaries will not be spared and countries on different regions of this world will be affected. 

III. Kabwe Case Study
The problem of lead poisoning in developing countries is compounded and more complex.  Consider the Kabwe case in Zambia, Africa.  Kabwe was considered as one of the richest and largest land mines in Africa during the early part of the 20th Century because of the discovery of lead deposits in the area.  As a result, mines were built and the people of Kabwe flocked to these mines.  The result was a catastrophe for the people of Kabwe.  It is now Africa’s most polluted city and the world’s fourth most polluted site.  Kabwe’s vegetation, soil and water were heavily contaminated with highly poisonous and toxic lead.  Since the mine started its operation, thousands of children and adults have been dying because of lead poisoning.  The incidences of mental retardation, meningitis, and infertility in the town have reached alarming proportions.    
What makes the situation worse is the lack of adequate intervention by the government in addressing this situation.  There is no effort by the government to relocate or to help people change their means of livelihood.  Likewise there is no help coming from other stakeholders such as the private agencies.  It bears stressing that it was only in last few years that the Kabwe Environmental and Rehabilitation Foundation had taken steps to educate the people of the dangers of lead poisoning.  The problem is further complicated by the fact that the people of Kabwe have no other sources of living except by scavenging from the open quarries and old dump sites to look for metals, coal and zinc.  The poor nutrition also exacerbates the condition, making treatment more difficult, and increasing the effects of lead absorption.  The people cannot abandon their only means of livelihood despite the dangers involved because there are no alternatives being provided by the government.  The people cannot leave their houses because there is no relocation effort and they have no other places to go to.   
The excessive attention and funds dedicated to the economic development and infrastructure projects have depleted the resources that should also be allocated to environmental concerns.  Allocations in the budgets of developing countries are almost always concentrated on the control of the spread of communicable and infectious diseases totally forgetting the impact of lead poisoning in the lives of their people.  It is sad to say that this problem is not properly addressed in developing countries.  This lack of clear policy on environmental issues exists because of the excessive attention given to the economic development and infrastructure projects in developing country.  Though these programs on improvement of the economy are important in the advancement of a developing country, environmental problems pose a significant obstacle to this goal.  It is therefore important for developing countries to address these environmental issues simultaneously with its other policies and programs. 

IV. Sources of Lead Poisoning
            One way stopping or controlling the problem of lead poisoning is to understand where it is coming from.  Sources of lead poisoning have been reported to exist in both developed and developing countries. What is most noteworthy, however, is that despite the existence of high risk of exposure lead poisoning, these countries differ in their response to this problem. 
One major source of lead poisoning in developing countries is the inhalation of vehicle fumes from cars which use leaded gasoline. It has been reported that around the world, about 830,000 people die every year through illnesses linked to exhaust fumes and industrial smog which engulf many cities of the Third World. (Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, n.d.,  p.1)  Unlike a motor vehicle accident which usually happens in dramatic fashion and with blood flowing alongside the road, death by inhalation of vehicle fume from cars is less overt and dramatic but is just as dangerous.  This is the reason why some countries are not finding the use of leaded gasoline a major source of concern.   
            The second source of lead poisoning happens right in the comfort of our own home.  At home, one of the major sources of lead poisoning is deteriorated lead paints.   There was a time when lead was added as an ingredient in making paints as it helped the paint dry more quickly and lead gave it a glossy and harder finishing.  It was not until the 20th Century that the danger of lead in household paint was recognized.  It was immediately banned in Australia in 1914 and by international convention in 1925.  It was not until 1978 that a statute was passed banning lead in household paint. 
Children are the ones more exposed to lead poisoning by means of lead paints since they have the tendency to take in their mouths foreign objects.  Whey they crawl on the floor and they immediately spot an object their natural reaction is to put these things inside their mouths.  It is possible that the objects they take inside their mouth are paint chips that peel from the walls or roofs or the lead-laden dust from the deteriorating lead paint.  They also have the tendency to bite and suck on the painted window sills of their house as they look outside. 
            The third source of lead poisoning is the drinking water people drink inside their own home.   Research shows that the use of lead pipes, brass plumbing with lead can cause a chemical reaction releasing lead into the tap water. 
            The fourth source of lead poisoning is the imported canned food.  It has been the practice of manufacturers of canned goods outside United States may use lead solders in its processing of its canned goods.  These canned goods are then sold in various markets, usually by door to door vendors. 

V. Role of Government in Controlling the Problem of Lead Poisoning
The government plays a very important role in controlling the adverse affects brought about by exposure to lead.  Its most important role is in raising the public awareness of the dangers of exposure to lead.  Until now, the level of public awareness on the possible sources of lead poisoning is not clear to the public. The public is still not aware that their routine activities expose them to lead poisoning.  In addition, the government also plays a lead role in enacting legislations that will reduce exposure to lead.  One of these is the legislation requiring the phase out of leaded gasoline.  In 1984, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development had already called all governments to eliminate lead from gasoline. By 1985 the U.S. EPA decided to implement the strict environmental policy of the phase out of leaded gasoline that its effect was felt.  It is said that from 1976 to 1990 the average blood lead levels (BLL) in the United States population declined from 14.5 to 2.8 micrograms per deciliter.  The same effect happened in Mexico City when blood lead level concentrations in schoolchildren dropped from 16.5 to 11. 14 micrograms per deciliter in 1992 after it adopted a policy against the use of leaded gasoline.  (Jacobo Finkelman, p.1)    
            The US government has already paved the way for other countries to follow to control lead poisoning.  One concern is that despite the effectiveness of regulating the use of leaded gasoline in developed countries like United States, very few countries have expressed their intention to phase out leaded gasoline.  Use of leaded gasoline is still very high in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Africa and Venezuela.  
In developed countries like the United States, use of lead in paint has long been banned. Aside from the banning of lead in paint is that that the government has implemented certain programs that will respond to this problem.  These government programs include: a) grant of housing programs to make homes lead safe; b) training of thousands of workers doing housing rehabilitation, remodeling, renovation, repainting and maintenance to help them do their work in a lead-safe way; c) licensing of inspectors and abatement contractors; d) compliance with and enforcement of lead safety laws. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development now require owners of houses built before 1978 to give prospective buyers information on the potential risk for lead poisoning.  Moreover, the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, requires the sellers, owners, and managers of residential buildings built before 1978 to warn prospective buyers and tenants about the likely presence of lead-based paint in dust or soil on the property.  In addition, by virtue of Executive Order 13045, then President William Jefferson Clinton created the Presidential Task Force on Environment Health Risks and Safety Risks. This task force was very instrumental in the implementation of various prevention programs.  It also undertook to increase the federal budgets of several government agencies, such as the DOJ and the Environmental Protection Agency which are directly responsible for controlling this problem of lead poisoning.   These safety precautions and prevention measures are lacking in developing countries. 
As for the potential source of lead poisoning in drinking water, in view of the discovery of the danger of using lead pipes in the water system, the US Congress restricted the use of lead in pipes, solder and other components in public water system.  The problem is worse in developing countries since most of these countries still lack the awareness that the drinking water system may be a source of lead poisoning.   
As for the imported canned goods, upon discovery of high risk exposure of lead poisoning in canned goods, the United States has banned the use of lead solder for sealing food cans.  It has also been very careful in monitoring the goods that enters its territory.    Developing countries are more vulnerable to exposure to lead poisoning by imported canned goods.  The lack of efficient regulation in the products that are imported from other countries make it susceptible to the possibility that these canned goods may enter the country undetected.    

VI. Conclusion
            Lead poisoning is indeed a serious problem not only of the Third World countries but even of the First World countries as well.  While it has serious implication to our health, this problem is preventable and controllable.  However, there is so much work to be done.  Lead poisoning will not go away unless there is a global effort to control this problem.   In the case of the United States, there has been considerable decrease in incidence of lead poisoning since it phased out leaded gasoline in 1985 and banned lead in household paint.  On the other hand, developing countries lack concrete programs to control and prevent the risk of lead poisoning.  There is likewise no clear environmental policy that will serve as the lighthouse for these countries for their future.  This lack of clear policy is mainly because of the lack of awareness of these countries of the dangers of exposure to lead poisoning.  Moreover, government regulations are not firmly in place so as to put a stop to the manufacture or importation of the sources of lead poisoning such as canned goods and ceramics.  Even if there are efforts, the same are not consistent enough to make long-term changes.  The lack of financial resources and technical capabilities of a country also makes it more difficult for them to implement long-term solutions to their problem.  The lack of other options available for the people also forces them to stay with their occupations that have high risk of exposure to lead poisoning.   
            A clear and definite environmental policy is essential in controlling the problem of lead poisoning.   Sustained effort is also needed to control this problem.  There must also be cooperation between the government and the other stakeholders such as private organizations and the people themselves. Prevention efforts and programs will not be as effective if the people will not cooperate.        

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