A few months ago, two incidents made me uneasy. One involved white smudges on my fingertips from the newly painted railing of my apartment building stairs; the other was finding paint patches on my children’s hands from the attractively painted blue-green-yellow-red playground equipment. These occurrences were troubling since I was aware of, yet not completely sure, about the facts regarding lead (paint) poisoning.
Internet research revealed surprising and worrisome information. Surprising because, while lead poisoning is an issue across India, indeed the world, Bangalore seems to be especially vulnerable to this health adversity.
‘Lead poisoning’ a.k.a. saturnism, plumbism or painter’s colic, caused by elevated blood levels of the metal lead (Pb), can induce neurological, renal, cardiovascular and reproductive damage. In growing children, lead poisoning causes low IQ, hyperactivity, attention deficit and learning disabilities. Worst cases include encephalopathy, paralysis and death. Women with high blood lead levels develop early osteoporosis, lower backache, joint pain and persistent anemia. Lead from mother’s blood passes to the fetus during pregnancy potentially originating genetic disorders for generations. Predominant sources of blood lead include gasoline emissions, battery recycling, silver refining, paints, pigments, printing presses, ceramic pottery glazes, cosmetics and traditional medicines.
In 1997, The George Foundation, with six Bangalore medical centers, initiated Project Lead-Free. Screening for lead and anemia expanded across India under the National Referral Centre for lead poisoning in India (NRCLPI) at the St John’s National Academy of Health Sciences, Bangalore. The Karnataka State PCB, Bangalore Municipal Transport Corporation (BMTC), Delhi-based India Lead Zinc Development Association, Slowpoison, WHO, OK International (U.S.) and Friends of Lead-Free Children Inc. (New York City) support local lead poisoning projects.
Past blood lead surveys found that 53% battery recyclers in India had lead levels above the 10mg/dl limit. In Bangalore 40% pre-teens had lead content above 10 mg/dl. Lead levels of pregnant women from Bangalore were found to range between 4.3 to 20.1 mg/dl. Lead poisoning in Bangalore is so serious that experts warn the city may soon be dubbed as ‘the Lead City’.
Toys, ceramics, festival idols, and wall cover contain lead-based paints. In 1978, United States (U.S.) restricted paint lead content since environmental lead exposures were poisonous, especially in young children. In 2006, University of Cincinnati health experts reported that in China, India and Malaysia almost 50% of paints used in children’s products, including playground structures, contained lead levels 30 times exceeding U.S. regulations.
In 2007, China-based toy manufacturers including Mattel (producer of Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels cars, Fisher-Price products, Elmo, Dora and Big Bird) recalled nearly 18 million lead-paint containing toys worldwide.
In 2007, Toxic Links published a report titled ‘A brush with toxics: an investigation on lead in household paints in India’. Overall 40% of 69 samples tested contained lead levels above 600 ppm, U.S. standard of lead in paints. Over 80% of the 31 enamel-paint samples tested had lead higher than 600 ppm, while 61% samples contained lead in excess of 5000 ppm. The Bureau of Indian Standard (BIS) benchmarks maximum lead content to 0.1% total weight in paints but no regulatory authority monitors manufacturers producing paints with 1-14% lead.
Alternative paint choices may include ICI Paints and AURO Natural Paints, believed to manufacture lead-free paint. Inhabitants of Good Earth Enclave, Bangalore use the traditional Indian option of limestone (or chuna).
In 2006, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported a lead poisoning treatment strategy in which a diet rich in iron-fortified food administered to lead-exposed Bangalore children reduced chronic lead intoxication. In 2008, The Indian Journal of Medical Sciences reiterated that lead poisoning, through education and reduction of environmental lead exposure, is a preventable disease. Earlier last month (8th February 2009), THE WEEK magazine published an investigative report on lead content in toys including an account of a seven year old boy diagnosed with lead poisoning at St John’s Medical Hospital, Koramangala, caused by paint flakes from playground slides and swings.
Dr. K. Chandrashekhar of NRCLPI says recent projects include consulting with lead-based industries to reduce lead contamination, educating children via school teachers and sample testing soil, ayurvedic medicines and cosmetics for lead content.
Concerned citizens may sign a petition, put forth by Toxics Links, to have their voices heard on this issue at www.gopetition.com.