Silent threatLead affects the health of all population groups and, more specifically, children
Children aged up to 14 years, who make up about 32 percent of Nepal’s total population, are at high risk of environmental and toxic chemical pollution in their homes, schools and playgrounds as shown by increasing blood lead levels (BLL) among school-going children in the country. Four consecutive studies conducted between 2010 and 2015 by the Centre for Public Health and Environmental Development (CEPHED), an NGO, on lead in decorative paints, especially oil-based enamel paints which are used to paint their homes, schools, furniture and toys, had found high levels of lead.
A high of 213,000 ppm (parts per million) of lead was detected in some popular brands of paint. Over 70 percent of all the paints produced, imported, marketed and used in Nepal have a much higher lead level than the internationally accepted standard of 90 ppm. Following the findings of these studies, the government of Nepal fixed the maximum permissible level at 90 ppm on June 20. This requires mass awareness and implementation and monitoring to produce effective results.
Children at risk
A study on lead in household and school dust conducted by CEPHED Nepal in 2014 in 16 households, five schools and two hospitals once again revealed the dangerously high lead levels in all the schools and even in some houses. A maximum of 108 µg/fr of lead was detected in classroom dust samples. Moreover, another study of toxic chemicals in toys imported, sold and used in Nepal found them to be heavily contaminated with several toxic and heavy metals including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and bromine. Though Nepal signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC 1989) 25 years ago, but Nepali children are still not able to play with safe toys, live safely at home and study in schools under safe conditions. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Another study on blood lead levels conducted in the Kathmandu Valley among 312 children aged three to 36 months by the Nepal Health Research Council under the Ministry of Health and Population revealed that about 90 percent of the children had detectable BLL. The study found that 26 percent of the children had a BLL of 0.1-5 mg/dL (micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood) while around 65 percent had a BLL of more than 5 mg/dL.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the US states that having a BLL of more than 5 mg/dL is harmful. Similar studies conducted in 2013 and 2014 among 612 school-going children in the Kathmandu Valley and the Dharan-Biratnagar industrial corridor revealed that 65 percent of them had a BLL of above 5 mg/dL. Likewise, studies done by CEPHED in 2012 on lead contamination in cosmetics and artificial jewellery sold in Nepal revealed very high levels of contamination in almost all the samples.
Lead affects the health of all population groups and, more specifically, children. It hampers the physical, mental and intellectual development of children, in particular, those aged up to six years. According to the World Health Organisation, lead exposure accounts for around 143,000 deaths per year globally. Similarly, about 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities caused by lead exposure are found annually, and 99 percent of these children live in low and middle-income countries.
In response to these issues of lead in paints and other products, the government of Nepal has fixed the maximum permissible level of lead at 90 ppm. However, as there is very little publicity of the lead paint standard, and high BLLs have been detected among Nepali children, immediate action from all, especially health journalists, is needed to spread this information and persuade the government to act. The paint industry and the associations like the Federation Of Nepalese Chamber Of Commerce & Industries must be urged to comply with the standard, and legislative and institutional arrangements should be made for effective implementation and monitoring.
Sah is executive director of Centre for Public Health and Environmental Development