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“Lead” is a serious health threat

“Lead” is a serious health threat

Bindu has fallen sick

Bindu is a resident of an urban housing scheme.  His mother is a pre-school teacher and father is a painter. Little Bindu used to go with his father to his working places. He would watch his father painting houses, sometime help him by washing paint brushes or mixing paints. Until his mother returns from school, Bindu spends his time with his father.

Once, Bindu started his pre-school education, although he was unable to go for work with his father, he was inseparable from his father’s lap when they both are at home.

Time passed by and Bindu started schooling. He spends most of his time alone. He didn’t like the company of friends very much. To be worst, he gets mad at even very small incidents and ends up hurting other children. He never paid much attention to teachers or lessons, he listened, just for the sake of having ears. He hated examinations. Never scored well in any subject. His presence in the school was very low. One day, his teacher asked about this from his mother.

“He often suffer from stomachaches teacher” replied his mother.

“I think you better consult a Pediatrician. This stomachache may not be only because of something he eats”. Although Bindu’s teacher pointed this out, Bindu’s mother didn’t find a time to meet a pediatrician.

One day, Bindu’s teacher discussed with her friend on Bindu’s awful behavior.

“I attended a lecturer recently, it was organized by an organization called Center for Environmental Justice, which work on Lead poisoning. They explained that when the heavy metal called lead gets contaminated in a child’s blood it can show up symptoms like developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and hearing loss. But they also said that to be certain it is due to lead poisoning, it is essential to carry a blood test. I think best thing is to get a blood lead level test done for this child”

Later someday, Bindu’s teacher went along with his mother and him to get a blood test done and then took the report to consult a doctor at “The National Poisons Information Centre”. Bindu’s teacher explained the doctor about behavior of Bindu and the blood test. The doctor then reviewed the blood report, checked Bindu and started speaking with the teacher and Bindu’s mother.

“You have done a very wise thing by coming here. Most of the times when someone observes this kind of behavior in a child, they just ignore thinking it’s normal for a child. But, in this case this child does have a lead poisoning”

“What is that doctor?”

“This child’s blood is contaminated with the heavy metal called lead. That’s the reason for most of his behaviors. Mainly weakness in learning. Actually, this child has a weak hearing and this is one of the effects of lead poisoning ”

“Can my child be cured doctor” asked Bindu’s mother crying.

“Yes. The lead content in Bindu’s blood is still very low. Only 15 micrograms per deciliter which means 15 micrograms per one tenth of a blood liter. Actually, it is not healthy to have any amount of lead in blood. Anyway….for the problem in hearing, you will have to consult an ENT doctor. He will probably recommend a hearing aid. Because the damage on nerves cannot be reversed. Also, we can control the toxicity in blood with certain kinds of foods”

“What kinds of food doctor?” Bindu’s mother asked curiously.

“Food that have less amounts of fat and rich in protein, calcium and vitamin C. like cereals such as Mung, chick peas, black eyed beans, dhal, peanuts and so on. Also spinach, milk, yogurt, curd, cheese, green vegetables and fruits. Because when there is lead in blood, if there is a lack of nutrients like iron, calcium and zinc, our body absorbs lead instead of these nutrients. It is also important to keep Bindu away from all possible sources of lead contamination”

“How did he get contaminated doctor?”

“Hmm… take a look at that poster. It clearly shows how anyone can get contaminated with lead. Main source being the lead contaminated paints applied in houses”


“Yes, why?”

“Bindu’s father is a building painter doctor. Ever since Bindu started to walk, he used to go with his father to assist in painting..” Bindu’s mother replied with tears.

“Is that so? So then Bindu could probably have got contaminated through paint. Lead could be contaminated in some enamel or lacquer that dissolve in thinner or turpentine, floor pints and anti-corrosive paints. Emulsion or paints dissolved in water are now safe except for those applied on walls before 1978s. Of course he must have got contacted with these while helping his father in panting.”

“So how can we identify the paint without harmful levels of lead?”

“Most of the times we can trust the standard certificates… sometimes the producer himself gives the certification, but they cannot be trusted always. Also you must be careful when buying yellow, green, red and orange colour enamel, lacquer or floor  paints that doesn’t’ have a standard certificate.  Today, you can find lead safe paints in any colour even for cheap prices. It’s just because we don’t know these things, we don’t bother to look for.”

“So then doctor, how did his lead got in to Bindu? Is it through his skin?” asked Bindu’s teacher.

“Not only through that. The paint we apply tend to decay with time and starts to peel off or when we deliberately scrape off old paint to apply the new coat, the lead contaminated in paints gets in to the dust and soil. Most of the times children plays on the floor getting dust on their bodies and hands..”

“Then when they put those hands in mouth, lead can get in to their stomach with the dust”

“Exactly.. you understood it well teacher. Also it is a habit of children to put anything on their hand in mouth. In a way that’s how they identify things at younger age. So, if those items or toys contain lead paint in them, these paint chips gets in to them when they chew it. In a child, almost fifty percent of lead in their food, absorbed into blood.. in an adult this amount is only ten percent.”

“I remind of it doctor, when he was small, Bindu used to crawl to wall to peel off loosened paint with his fingers and often eat those paint chips unless we are around. I have washed his mouth several times when I saw him doing this.”

“Hmm. Yes, researchers say that children likes this taste. There are children who has got addicted to eat paint chips. On another hand if Bindu’s father returns home with his working suit, this can bring lead in paints to household environment and then when Bindu cuddles with his father, Bindu can easily get contaminated.”

“No doctor, Bindu’s father wears a different suit for work. After working, he takes a bath and change the suit before he comes home. He even washes his working suit separately.”

“Now, that’s a very good thing.”

“Then doctor, has even Bindu’s father got contaminated with this toxic?”

“Possible. But have to prove with a blood test like this. Also, those who paint cars or gates, welders, workers of metal factories and lead battery factories, gold extractors, workers who demolish buildings, have a higher risk of lead contamination. Usually, when an adult gets contaminated with lead, they show symptoms like high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, difficulties with memory or concentration, headache, abdominal pain and mood disorders. But often these can be result of another toxic or toxics. So, they have to be proved with a blood test to confirm its because of lead”

“Does this toxic affect on having a child too?”

“Yes. If a man is contaminated with lead, his sperm count can be less and abnormal. Also it can result miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in a pregnant women.”

“Then why is there a plate in this poster doctor?”

“The paint applied on plates and cups can be contaminated with lead. Therefore we have to be careful when selecting plates and cups for everyday use. At least that doesn’t have paint in the part that we eat on and put in our mouth. Better alternatives are plain white, glass or stainless steel tableware”

“Do even jewelry contain lead?”

“Hmm… this poster shows the artificial metallic and painted jewelry. Now-a-days many wear these, specially to escape from thieves. But, when we are with a child, better be careful. Because children tend to bite these. Also when they get contacted with the skin over a long period, even adults can get contaminated”

“Why is there a salmon tin in this poster?”

“There are tins that are welded with lead. These are often used in packing paint not salmon or foods though. One of the reasons how paint gets lead. Worst part is, children then use these empty paint tins as toys”

“Even my husband welds small parts with lead at home” said Bindu’s teacher.

“It can be hazardous, unless you do it with a face mask on and in a place well ventilated. But now a days there are conductive glues and other alloys to be used for welding instead of lead”

“Then doctor, if we apply paint on these welded metals? Can it prevent lead contamination?”

“Actually the thing is, even these paints that we call, anti-corrosive, can contain lead. Specially the red colour”

“We always use those paint on window grills of our pre-school. I have often seen children hanging in these to look outside for their parents. Habitually, children bite the grill while hanging”

“That’s the way of children. Best thing would be to apply white anti-corrosive”

“These days almost every pencil comes with red, yellow, green or black paint…. and children use to put these pencils in mouth” said Bindu’s teacher.

“Even in my pre-school we had the same problem. But then I told them pencil chips may generate worms in their stomach. Ever after, they rarely show that habit”

“That’s a great idea!”

“Then doctor, what are the other things that can cause lead contamination in children?” Bindu’s teacher asked enthusiastically.

“Anything that has lead contaminated paint on it, for example school bags, pencil boxes, slippers, shoes, also those swings, seesaws in pre-schools and children’s play grounds can be sources of lead exposure”

“I will find lead free paint next time to apply in the pre-school”

“That’s good. First look for the  standard certification which confirms whether its lead safe. I said the word ‘safe’ because we can only expect it under a certain limit. But not without it at all.. the world has now accepted the limit below 90 ppm or 90 miligrams per one kilo of paint.

“But, how do we recognize?”

“Well, first thing would be to look for the standard. next, there are some self labels that manufactures has put on their own. But, these are not always trustworthy. In the absence of both, better stay away from red, green, yellow and orange colour oil based paints. It would better to wear hand gloves and face mask in applying paints. At least a long sleeved shirt and trouser . You must also keep in mind that it is vital not to scrape off the old paint when you apply the new paint. Because these paint chips and dust can be mixed up in dust and cobwebs in the house or sand in the garden. Best thing is to wash off the peeled paint  if you find it  affecting the new paint coat.  As for the garden, best would be to grow grass to prevent exposure.”

“What about the lead in house dust?”

“That’s a good question. Not only from paint, the house dust can get contaminated with lead from several sources. If you have a lead battery factory or a vehicle painting workshop near the house or if there’s a worker of any of these places or work places I mentioned earlier, the household dust can get lead. You must make sure to clean the house often. At least once a week. Floor, window frames, window seals, door frames, children’s toys and cots should be wiped and cleaned with water. Those wipes then have to cleaned properly and shall not be used for another purpose. Special attention must be given to places where dust accumulates more. Such as corners of the house and underneath the furniture”

“Now only I realize the depth of this matter. In my pre-school, it’s always mothers who come to help in painting furniture and toys of children. Next time, I will make sure all this are followed”

“Now since you mentioned, even toys have to be taken care of.. if it’s a developed country, we would trust the paint in it. They also take a special care for lead and other chemical safety in what they call ‘secondary toys’, like key tags, children’s clothes with painted arts that are not toys but what children play with.  But whatever produced locally can have lead contaminated paints. So, best thing would be to get plain wooden toys and paint it with a lead safe paint. Or else you can order from the manufacturer with the condition that they have to apply lead safe paint. As alternatives, you can use stuffed toys or toys made of hard boards, chip boards or so”

“Then doctor how about pastel chalk and play clay?”

“There are no researches to prove this exactly. But do you know, you can make clay at home with corn starch, baking soda and food coloring? Also, we can always use natural clay instead”

“Yes doctor, what else we had in our time. I remember me and my mother collecting clay from our paddy field to make sculptures at school”


“Why does this poster have lipstick?”

Doctor smiled.. “Unfortunately, researchers have found lead in some lipsticks, nail paint or cutex, perfumes and whitening or fairness creams. Specially in lipsticks and nail paints of colors like dark red and brown, shiny products. It seems like applying lip balm is safer than applying lipsticks. Some girls even make lip balms at home. Also there are lipsticks made of natural ingredients. Anyhow, a pregnant women better stay away from these cosmetics. Also children, I have seen parents applying make-up on children too”

“In that case, even we would have to get our blood tested” Bindu’s teacher said worriedly.

“We do like beauty. But in reality, almost all the lipstick we apply ends up in the stomach”

“True doctor, even nail paints, we don’t even notice when it fades off. It may not only be eaten with food but also mixed up when we cook..”

“That reminds me, how many of us take bread or rotee wrapped  in news papers and later eat the bread with the news… even this is lead”

“That means do even news paper ink contain lead?”

“Highly possible. Because in Sri Lanka, we don’t have a regulation to control the lead limit in printing ink. Therefore, we  must keep in mind to wrap food in print less papers, whenever we have to. Some even use news papers to put fried food. Even for this, we better use papers without a print. To carry food, best would be to bring them in a box”

“Are even water bottles hazardous doctor?”

“It’s not lead that you need to be cautious when selecting a water bottle. It’s the type of plastic. For everyday use, you better use a bottle of plastic number 5 or above. It’s not safe to use PET bottles or those we get soft drinks in or water in the market.  After the first use, the chemicals in these bottles tend to melt into the liquid we put in lately. Regarding lead, since there are no pictures in the part contact with water or mouth, there is no big hazard”

“But some children always scratch these stickers when ever their hands are free”

“That’s true and that’s why we must wash their hands well whenever we give them something to eat. Also have to keep their nails short. That’s a good habit not only to stay safe from lead but also from other germs as well”

“Thank you very much for all this information doctor”

“That’s my job and the duty. It’s not only lead. There are other chemicals as well, that we need to stay cautious. Do come in another day with your friends to learn about them too. Just make sure to consult an ENT doctor for Bindu. Also do feed him meals rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C. take special measures to keep him away from all possible lead sources. Don’t forget, lead poisoning is completely preventable

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