A new study by the Center for Global Development (CGD) has revealed that lead poisoning is causing more deaths than even lung cancer, and it’s affecting kids in low-income countries the most.

The CGD’s year-long research found that lead poisoning is a global crisis, but it hasn’t received enough attention from those who could help.

Shockingly, around 815 million children, are suffering from lead poisoning. This dangerous condition can lead to heart and kidney problems, lower intelligence, violent behavior, and even early death. In fact, it’s estimated that lead poisoning caused around 5.5 million deaths in 2019, nearly three times the number of deaths from lung cancer.

The cost of these premature deaths is enormous, around $4.6 trillion, and it’s also a significant barrier to achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

Kids are especially vulnerable because they often come into contact with lead. They might play with toys covered in lead paint or ingest other lead-contaminated items. Lead is harmful because it can easily affect a child’s brain development.

The CGD’s research showed that kids exposed to more lead tend to perform worse in school, both in terms of test scores and IQ.

About one-fifth of the difference in test scores between rich and poor countries is linked to lead exposure.

In wealthier countries, strict rules and investments have reduced kids’ exposure to lead. However, in poorer nations, lead is still used in products like paint, traditional medicines, spices, and cookware, leading to contamination. There are also issues with mining waste facilities being too close to homes and weak safety standards for recycling lead-acid batteries.

The numbers are shocking. More than half of children in low-income countries have lead poisoning, compared to just 3% in rich countries. Even in places like Flint, USA, where there was a water crisis due to lead in drinking water, fewer than 4% of kids were affected.

The good news is that the CGD believes that with $350 million in targeted aid from 2024 to 2030, we can make a big difference in reducing lead exposure in lower-income countries. This money would go towards things like testing for lead, raising awareness, and creating and enforcing rules.

However, the CGD points out that right now, only $11 million in philanthropic funds go to help with lead exposure in these countries each year. They’re calling for major action to address this “slow-moving crisis” and are urging development agencies and banks to support governments in these countries in developing plans that include regulations and more awareness.

In the short term, removing products with lead from the market can have a big impact. For example, a study in Bangladesh found that turmeric was often mixed with lead to make it look brighter, which was a major source of lead exposure. When the public was educated about the risks, and inspectors started testing turmeric samples and imposing fines, the lead content dropped to zero in just a year.

This issue is urgent, as it affects millions of kids worldwide and poses a major threat to public health. We must act now to protect future generations from lead poisoning.

Lead photo: Felix Clay