Lead Poisoning Is Not Child's Play
By Mario Osava
Children in Latin America can no longer play freely on the ground: industrial waste of heavy metals contaminate their bodies, stunting growth, causing deafness and even mental disabilities.
RIO DE JANEIRO, (Tierramérica).- A silent enemy is attacking thousands of children in the cities of Latin America: lead.
Heavy metal residues produced by industry and motorized vehicles contaminate the blood, and in children, over the long term, can cause chronic anemia, slow mental and physical development, and alter normal behavior.
A study by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) conducted in the mid-1990s found that the concentration of lead in the blood of Latin American children in urban areas of several countries exceeded by 15 to 20 percent, on average, the limit of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter (10 ug/dl), established by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Lead is one of the most dangerous contaminants to children's health, says the WHO. Every day, 5,500 children worldwide die of illnesses related to environmental pollutants.
The main source of lead contamination in cities is leaded fuel, particularly gasoline used in vehicle motors. But exposure to the lead used in several types of industries (mining, paints, ceramics, batteries) is increasingly common, and these hotpoints of contamination are sometimes not discovered until years or decades later.
Such is the case of the neighborhood of La Teja, in Montevideo, Uruguay, which in the last century was home to foundries, metal workshops and various industries, most of which have been shut down due to economic crisis.
Two years ago, a child from La Teja was found to have more than 30 ug/dl of lead in his blood, three times the limit set by the WHO. Later, numerous other cases of lead poisoning were found in that neighborhood, in other districts of the capital, and in other cities.
The community affected by the lead contamination launched a broad mobilization to demand answers from the authorities, but ended up in a clash with the government. Of the approximately 7,500 children examined, the Health Ministry only recognizes a few hundred cases: those with more than 20 ug/dl.
The government "still does not have concrete data about the number of people affected," Raquel Rosas, a director at the Public Health Ministry, told Tierramérica.
There is no reliable information about the true scope of lead poisoning among children in a given area, and the levels of exposure vary dramatically from country to country. Measurements made by PAHO in the mid-1990s ranged from concentrations of 3.4 ug/dl in Trinidad and Tobago to 28.8 ug/dl in Ecuador.
Peru, the world's fourth exporter of lead, is one of the most contaminated countries, largely because there is a lack of appropriate prevention measures, say experts.
In several areas of the mining town of Oroya, 150 km east of Lima, the blood of 13 of every 30 children under age three is contaminated with at least 42 ug of lead per deciliter, according to a study conducted in July by toxicologists from the U.S.-based Columbus Children's Hospital.
There are 2,000 children age two whose future is threatened, but the Peruvian authorities have yet to impose stricter environmental standards on the mining industry.
Lead penetrates the body through inhalation, ingestion or through the skin and is more harmful to children because the metabolism of a child absorbs the lead more readily than that of an adult.
Furthermore, children are more exposed because games and play tend to put them in greater contact with the contaminated ground.
In 1998, Peru's Health Ministry acknowledged that 5,000 children living near the mining areas in the port city of Callao registered 20 to 40 ug/dl of lead in the blood. Nearly 100 percent of the 350 students at the María Reich public school have more than 40 ug/dl.
A mobilization led by Ida Ballasco, mother of two children with lead poisoning, convinced the city of Callao to close six mining installations that did not comply with standards for preventing contamination of the surrounding areas.
In Brazil, the authorities of the southern city of Baurú closed the Ajax battery factory in January because it violated environmental laws. In April, the first cases of lead poisoning were found.
Of 860 children living within a one-km radius of the factory, 301 surpass the WHO limit of lead in the blood, Jaira Rocco Kirchner, director of the city's mobile health units, told Tierramérica. The 22 who registered more than 30 ug/dl were hospitalized. All will be subject to medical observation over the next 10 years.
A major challenge facing neighborhoods like Tangarás, in Baurú, is how to decontaminate the soil. Under consideration is the removal of the surface layer, where the lead particulate is concentrated, but then the problem is how to store such a large volume of contaminated soil.
The situation is worse in the slum settlements of La Teja, in Uruguay, where the ground has 3,000 to 15,000 parts lead per million units of soil (ppm). Acceptable limits in industrialized countries like Canada and the United States range from just 140 to 400 ppm, says Luis Lazo, director of environmental development for the Montevideo municipal government.
"Nobody should be living in those parts of La Teja," comments Lazo.
At the first Summit of the Americas, held in the U.S. city of Miami in 1994, the presidents of North and South America declared that lead poisoning among children was a serious public health problem and agreed to eliminate leaded gasoline by 2000.
To date, 15 countries have eradicated or dramatically reduced the lead in fuel (Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil were the pioneers), but few regulate the handling of industrial waste, which often contaminate the ground where children play.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent, as are contributors to this report Abraham Lama/Peru and Diana Cariboni/Uruguay.