Repeated Exposure to Lead Can Cause Severe Neurological Impacts, Says WHO

Posted on: Mon 28-03-2022

The World Health Organisation says exposure to lead is often not serious in an acute incident, but repeated exposure at low levels can give rise to severe neurological impacts that might last a lifetime.

The WHO Regional Advisor, Occupational and Environmental Health, Dr. Lesley Onyon, said this during an interview session tagged ‘Science in 5’ posted on WHO’s website.

She noted that everyone is potentially at risk from exposure to lead, but that the effects are more on children under five years of age, pregnant and lactating mothers and adults who are occupationally exposed.

She, however, noted that the effects of lead can often go unrecognised because they can be insidious and fairly mild, and can manifest in the form of anemia, constipation, abdominal cramps.

“It is the neurological effects that we are most concerned about and particularly those affecting children. So, the neurological effects themselves can range in severity from irritable behavior, clumsiness, right through to more serious, life-threatening neurological diseases and effects such as encephalopathy and coma, convulsions and death.

“Adults are also affected, particularly cardiovascular diseases and renal diseases. These are affecting occupational groups in particular. Exposure to lead is often not serious in an acute incident, but the repeated exposure at low levels can give rise to these severe neurological impacts that can last a lifetime,” she said.

WHO estimates that almost one million people die from the effects of lead exposure.

According to Onyon, lead can be found in some traditional medicines and cosmetics and in other household sources and glazed pottery.

She said, “The mouthing of objects containing lead is a particular danger for children. Small objects such as fishing weights and curtain weights can easily be swallowed and then have a lasting effect once remaining in the body. But there’s also the mouthing of amulets and toy jewelry and so on.

“A particular growing source of lead exposure comes from the recycling of lead-acid batteries and these are a growing need in our society, whether it be for electric vehicles, whether it be for small scale uninterrupted power supply.

“But the recycling of these batteries is often done under very poor conditions, often within homes as a sort of cottage industry in developing countries and therefore, whole communities and families can be affected.”

To prevent lead poisoning, Onyon advised that houses be checked to see if they contain lead paint before any major renovation projects are carried out.

She also said cheap, brightly coloured toys, jewelry and other things that children can put in their mouths and potentially swallow should be avoided.

She added, “Also important is to store food and drink in preferably glass containers, certainly to not store food in tins that can have solder inside them containing lead.

“I know that it is sort of common practice to reuse plastic containers these days, but sometimes these plastic containers can come from lead-acid batteries and other sources, so be very careful there. Finally, talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns,” she advised.