The result of what is the world’s largest study of its kind have shown that lead pollution is silently turning Indian city kids stupid. The study conducted on 22,000 children below the age of 12 in Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Hyderabad and Vellore earlier this year to examine the effects of lead poisoning revealed that 51.4 percent children have more than 100 micrograms of lead per litre of blood, which has resulted in reducing their IQ by nearly six percent.
Said Stephen Null, director of Friends of Lead Free Children (FLFC), the American non-profit organisation that conducted the study: “Lead poisoning grinds down a genius to the level of average intelligence, and an average child becomes disabled. Children can never hope to achieve their full potential, as long as they live in a lead-polluted atmosphere.”
Besides the brain, lead particles from car exhausts poison children’s liver, lungs, bones and soft tissues. Seven sources of lead poisoning have been identified: gasoline additives, food-can soldering, lead-based paints, ceramic glazes, drinking water systems, cosmetics and cooking utensils. By far, the biggest culprit is gasoline; only a small percentage of gasoline sold in India is of the unleaded variety.
“Some lead sources are typically Indian,” said T. Venkatesh, a leading Indian biochemist assisting the FLFC, “The kalaai [lead oxide coat on the bottom of bronze, brass, copper and aluminum cooking vessels], the paints on our pencils, which children chew, the paint on clay images of gods and goddesses we immerse in our rivers and lakes round the year. Some traditional hair dyes and cosmetics also contain lead.”
Experts attribute hyperactivity, behavioural problems, loss of hearing and concentration among children to lead poisoning. High lead concentrates can lead to swelling of the brain, coma, convulsions and even death. “Even a foetus is not spared, as lead reaches it through its mother’s blood and the umbilical cord, destroying a lot of its abilities even before the child is born,” said Null.
“In the US, all the petrol has been converted to the unleaded variety and the results have been dramatic. But in Indian cities, only about 8 percent of petrol sold is unleaded, and that too is available only in selected cities and towns.”
Venkatesh, who is preparing a dos and don’ts pamphlet for circulation on behalf of FLFC, had a few suggestions. “We have to change our habits. Never eat anything wrapped in newspapers, as newsprint contains lead. We should wash our hair at night before going to bed to get rid of lead particles gathered during the day. Floors should not be swept, only mopped with a wet cloth, to prevent lead dust from rising.”
This prescription may be difficult to follow, but the FLFC study seems to have shaken up the authorities a bit. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted in a letter to the organisation that lead poisoning is the second major health hazard in the country after AIDS, and promised to make unleaded petrol compulsory throughout India “for the sake of our children”. Now the powers-that-be will have to match his words with actions.