Exposure to lead is extremely harmful to children and adults—the health effects are generally irreversible and can have lifelong impact. Most vulnerable are unborn fetuses, and a pregnant woman can transfer lead to her developing child. Evidence of reduced intelligence from childhood lead exposure has caused the World Health Organization to recognize “lead-caused mental retardation” as a disease.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that is found in many products around the world, including everyday products in our homes and workplaces. Exposure to lead can harm our health and even small amounts can damage a child's neurological development, causing learning difficulties and behavioral problems.
Lead in paint is one of many serious sources of childhood lead exposure. Though lead’s adverse health effects have been well documented and industrial countries banned the manufacture and use of lead paints more than 40 years ago, lead continues to be widely used in paints manufactured and distributed in developing countries.
IPEN is working with NGOs across the globe to eliminate lead in paint and raise widespread awareness among business entrepreneurs and consumers about the adverse human health impacts of lead-based decorative paints, particularly on the health of children under six years old.
Exposure to lead is much more harmful to children than adults, and the health effects are generally irreversible and can have a lifelong impact. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be. The human fetus is the most vulnerable and a pregnant woman can transfer lead that has accumulated in her body to that of her developing child.
Evidence of reduced intelligence caused by childhood exposure to lead has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to list “lead caused mental retardation” as a recognized disease. WHO also lists it as one of the top ten diseases whose health burden among children is due to modifiable environmental factors.
Lead from paint is recognized as one of the major sources of childhood lead exposure.
Children are not generally exposed to lead from paint while the paint is still in the can or when the paint is being newly applied to a previously unpainted or uncoated surface. Rather, lead exposure generally occurs after the lead paint has already dried on the wall or on the article that has been painted.
Painted surfaces age, weather, and chip with time. During this process, any lead that is in the paint enters indoor and outdoor dusts and soils in and around the painted home or building. When a surface that was previously painted with lead paint is sanded or scraped in preparation for repainting, very large amounts of lead-contaminated dusts and soils are produced. Children playing indoors or outdoors get dust and soil on their hands, and then ingest it through normal hand-to-mouth behavior. This is especially true for children aged six years and under, the age group most easily harmed by exposure to lead. Paint chips can be especially harmful because their lead content can be much higher than what is typically found in dust and soils. In some cases, children may pick up paint chips and put them into their mouths. And when toys or other articles are painted with lead paint, children may chew on them and directly ingest the lead-contaminated dried paint. However, the most common way in which children ingest lead is thought to be through lead-containing dust.
Children and workers are especially at risk when surfaces that were previously painted with lead paint are repainted or disturbed by construction or other activities. Workers may sand, dry scrape, grind, or in other ways disturb the old painted surface and produce large quantities of dust with very high lead content.
Children have an innate curiosity to explore their world and engage in developmentally appropriate hand-to-mouth behavior. For example, a typical one- to six-year-old child ingests approximately 100 milligrams of house dust and soil each day. Wherever house dust and soils are contaminated with lead, children ingest lead along with the dust and soil. Ingested lead in children who suffer from nutritional deficiencies is absorbed at an increased rate.
Children are more biologically susceptible to lead than adults for several reasons, including:
- A child’s brain undergoes very rapid growth, development and differentiation and lead interferes with this process. Brain damage caused by chronic, low-level exposure to lead is irreversible and untreatable.
- Exposure to lead early in life can re-program genes, which can lead to altered gene expression and an associated increased risk of disease later in life.
- Gastrointestinal absorption of lead is enhanced in childhood. Up to 50 percent of ingested lead is absorbed by children, as compared with 10 percent in adults (pregnant women may also absorb more ingested lead than other adults).
In recent years, medical researchers have been documenting significant health impacts on children from lower and lower lead exposures. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other authorities have concluded that there is no known acceptable lead exposure level for children.
 Childhood Lead Poisoning, World Health Organization, 2010; p. iii, http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/leadguidance.pdf
 Childhood Lead Poisoning, World Health Organization, 2010, Page 18 http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/leadguidance.pdf
 Ibid, page 48
 Lead Poisoning, by Herbert Needleman, Annual Review of Medicine 2004, http://www.rachel.org/files/document/Lead_Poisoning.pdf
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