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January 19, 1999


Lead poisoning bit a huge threat, suggests study

E-Mail this report to a friend A Special Correspondent in Bangalore

The results of the first and biggest-ever survey of lead poisoning among children in major cities of India is beginning to worry research fellows at the St John's Medical College Hospital, Bangalore, the nodal centre for The George Foundation-sponsored Project Lead-Free.

The survey, which was launched in 1997, was completed a couple of months ago after the testing of blood samples of over 21,000 people, mainly children and pregnant women, in Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Hyderabad and Vellore. The sample is claimed to be the biggest-ever in the world.

"Early results point to a major crisis in India due to lead poisoning. The exact numbers can be released only on February 8 and, I can tell you, people are going to get the shock of their lives," Dr Abraham George, managing trustee of The George Foundation and the prime mover behind the Project, told Rediff On The NeT.

On February 8, an international conference on prevention and treatment of lead poisoning will be hosted in Bangalore by The George Foundation in collaboration with the World Bank, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Environmental Protection Agency. The others involved are the World Health Organisation, Indian ministries of health, environment and forests, the John Hopkins University and Friends of Lead-Free Children.

"I cannot disclose anything about the study now. But, it is definitely shocking,'' concurs Dr T Venkatesh, professor and head of the department of biochemistry, St John's Medical College Hospital. If the results as claimed by both Dr George and Dr Venkatesh are true, will be a damning indictment of pollution control in India.

The biggest problem is that "no symptoms are a symptom of lead poisoning . Someday, it will manifest itself," said Dr Venkatesh. It could be as simple as stomach ache, periodic headache or vomiting. There could be anaemia, abdominal cramps, lethargy, or more serious ailments like hypertension, loss of hearing, neurological symptoms and psychiatric problems like behavioural disorders, retarded growth, hyperactivity, hyper-irritability or loss of recently acquired developmental skills.

This is one spectrum of the health hazard. The other aspect is what both Dr George and Dr Venkatesh are worried about. That is, increased lead poisoning leads to loss of IQ (intelligent quotient) among children. Children absorb lead ten times faster than adults. And, as most of the organs in a child are developing, more damage is done.

Early stages of lead poisoning are nearly invisible. People with lead levels between 0 and 10 mcg/dl (micrograms per decilitre) may show some minor health problems. But between 10 and 20 mcg/dl, it starts affecting IQ levels.

"For every 10 mcg/dl increase in lead levels in the blood, there is an approximate loss of 5 to 6 per cent in IQ levels. If the lead levels are not immediately checked, there is that much more loss of intelligence,'' Dr George said.

"A mother tells me that her child is hyperactive but is not doing well in his studies. Screening of blood for lead poisoning confirms our apprehension. High levels of lead poisoning leads to decreased intelligence. In short, lead kills intelligence. It is frightening to imagine a future generation that lacks intelligence, '' says Dr Venkatesh.

Dr George looks at the problem of falling IQ levels from another angle. "If they lose IQ, what is the loss to the nation? Ours is a growing economy, a developing country. You are creating an entire labour force functioning at very low levels. Can the nation prosper?"

Children are at more risk because they are constantly in touch with the environment. Faster metabolism causes them to eat more for their body weight and to breathe faster, all of which makes it easier for lead to creep in. Children also tend to play and breathe closer to the ground where lead dust concentrates. They are also likely to put their hands into their mouths and take in lead.

Lead can be ingested from various sources. Though vehicles are major source of emission, it could also be from the 'T' joint attached to the geyser (since hot water carries lead faster than cold water), drinking water systems, lead-based paints and cosmetics.

Lead isn't bio-degradable. Therefore, it remains everywhere, in the soil, air, water and homes. In fact, Dr Venkatesh said he has stopped asking some poor patients where they come from.

"I can identify the area and they promptly confirm it --. a low-lying area in Bangalore. Dust deposited there does not budge, even on a windy day. Lead settles and that adds to the poisoning, '' he says.

"We know of a case, where the father, a painter, hugs his child everyday after returning from work, and the child's blood showed higher lead levels," said Dr Venkatesh.

Treatment of lead poisoning isn't cheap. In cases where the lead levels in the blood go beyond 30 mcg/dl, lead can be removed intravenously. But, it also removes other minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium, calling for costly infusion of all the other minerals.

Drugs used currently in the United States of America, like dimercaptosuccinic acid, are still not available in this country. The drug is undergoing field trials now after Dr George took the initiative after launching Project Lead-Free under the chairmanship of the former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Oscar Dawson.

Dr George, a non-resident Indian and author of books on international financing, took up the cause after seeing stunted children with watery eyes at Shanti Bhavan in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

"We had to supply equipment to all hospitals where screening was done because there are no lead analysers in our country," Dr George says.

The George Foundation runs Shanti Bhavan, a boarding school, where four-year-olds, living below the poverty line, are picked up, provided with "world class facilities" to study. This is consistent with Dr George's belief that regardless of the background from which they come, children can grow and contribute to society and the country if given all the opportunities. Let lead not spoil it.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention childhood lead poisoning prevention program
The US Environmental Protection Agency

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