It’s Time for the G7 to End Lead Poisoning – Worldwide and Forever
Lead poisoning
Flint’s crisis was just the tip of the global lead poisoning iceberg.

 The G7 summit in Hiroshima needs to produce a strong, clear high-level statement, acting upon recent commitments by Environment Ministers to end lead poisoning, and consigning this leading cause of childhood death and disability to the dustbin of history.

In 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan, began reporting problems with the tap water in their homes. Suddenly, the water was discolored and smelly, tasted foul, and seemed to cause rashes and hair loss. Testing eventually confirmed a serious problem: to generate cost-savings, policymakers had decided to source water from the Flint River—and its highly corrosive water was leaching lead from old pipes and water mains into the drinking water.

Lead has wide-ranging toxic effects at all ages, but it is especially dangerous in children, as it impedes normal cognitive development and can cause permanent learning and behavioral problems. In the years that followed, the 30,000 Flint school children who were exposed during the crisis continued to struggle academically and behaviorally.

The situation sparked national outrage and widespread international attention: how could we allow children to be poisoned just to save money? Many around the world saw the Flint crisis as an American aberration: a legacy of old lead pipes, socioeconomic deprivation, policymaker callousness, and persistent racial inequalities (the city of Flint is majority African American).

Yet lead poisoning is far from a uniquely American problem – and Flint was just the tip of the global lead poisoning iceberg. Well beyond US borders, the global crisis of lead poisoning continues at an almost unimaginable scale—and the world is just now waking up to the challenge. And as a group of countries that have battled lead poisoning for decades, the G7 has an important opportunity to help de-lead the world, helping the next generation of children to grow and thrive.

Lead is Damaging Children and Adults on Massive Scale

The numbers are truly staggering. Around the world an estimated 800 million children—one in three! —have blood-lead levels (BLLs) above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for public health intervention. Almost all of these children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where average blood lead levels often exceed the WHO reference level of 5 micrograms per decilitre (Figure 1). But few LMICs systematically measure BLL, so most health workers and policymakers remain unaware of the problem. Unseen and largely ignored, lead poisoning ranks among the largest and most neglected public health challenges facing LMICs.

During human evolution, lead remained safely tucked in the earth’s crust, far from our air, soil, and water. When we began excavating, smelting, and using it for weapons, construction, cookware, and jewelry, our bodies had no mechanism to safely process or excrete it. Even in ancient times, some acute toxic effects of lead were known; now, modern science has shown wide-ranging harms, even at relatively low levels.

According to the WHO, there is no safe level of lead. Lead affects every system of the body, spiking the risk for cardiovascular disease, neurological problems, and infertility, causing an estimated 900,000 deaths each year. Acute poisoning can cause seizures, paralysis, colic, coma, and sudden death. Perhaps most tragically, lead poisoning interrupts the normal brain development of young children, with permanent effects; it has been causally linked to learning and behavioral problems, and there are also suggestive associations with crime and violence, too. The combined burden represents an enormous tax on children’s futures and adults’ lifelong health; one study suggests that the economic effects of childhood learning deficits from lead stack up to almost $1 trillion each year in LMICs.

Leaded Petrol is History, But Lead is Still Found in LMIC Homes, Workplaces, and Environments

For most of the twentieth century, lead was added to gasoline across the world; lead exhausts then contaminated the air and soil, leading to almost universal lead poisoning near roads and within congested cities. Today, leaded petrol is banned in every single country, representing one of the biggest public health achievements of all time.

The phase-out of leaded petrol was a big win, but clearly not “mission accomplished.” The vast majority of lead still used today goes into lead-acid batteries; these can be recycled, but the process is very dangerous and polluting to the air, soil, and groundwater when done in the informal sector or by poorly regulated industrial operations. Paint manufacturers also add lead to their formulations to improve color and durability; highly leaded paints are still found in many LMICs, including legal sales across large swathes of Africa and Asia (Figure 2), which continue to introduce lead into homes, workplaces, schools, and public facilities. Other (probably) important sources of lead exposure are common household and kitchen goods like contaminated spices, cookware, cosmetics, toys, and jewelry.

Now is the time for the G7 to Stop Lead Poisoning Across the World

In 2020, the world began waking up to the enormity of the lead poisoning problem after a landmark report by UNICEF and Pure Earth finally quantified the burden. The G7 issued a strong statement against global lead poisoning in its 2022 Environment Ministers’ Communique; hosted a workshop on the issue in November of the same year; and reiterated its commitment at the Environment Ministers meeting just last month. And in India, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan recently suggested the need to elevate lead poisoning awareness within the government’s flagship National Health Mission.

Lead poisoning is a serious challenge, but our recent report suggests that it’s an eminently solvable one—if and only if it receives policy prioritization commensurate with its importance. So far, G7 efforts have been relatively small in scale and highly fragmented, without a clear or comprehensive theory of change. Necessarily, the G7 cannot do everything alone; many of the solutions are found primarily at the national level. Yet G7 countries, as a grouping and in their individual capacities, are well placed to support and catalyze a serious global movement against lead poisoning. We see a few specific opportunities.

G7 leaders will convene in Hiroshima, Japan, from May 21-29.

First, the G7 should reaffirm and elevate a collective political commitment to a shared vision for a world free of lead poisoning. A strong, clear, and high-level statement is needed, referencing up-to-date international standards and evidence, and endorsed by the political leadership of G7 members, to elevate lead poisoning as a priority issue with independent standing as a pressing global challenge.

Second, we want to see strengthened international cooperation—among G7 members and the broader global community—to progressively reduce the burden of lead poisoning worldwide. The G7 should consider introducing more structured standards, potentially under the auspices of a voluntary or binding international agreement, plus regular coordination, and strategic alignment. Third, the G7 should expand its use of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), including via technical assistance, to invest in global and country-level capacity to monitor, prevent, and treat lead poisoning.

Finally, G7 countries need to get their own houses in order to lead by example; this means passing stringent domestic regulatory standards; ensuring compliance with existing treaty obligations; integrating lead poisoning awareness and prevention into health and safety protocols for government staff; expanding domestic surveillance systems; and implementing trade measures for responsible lead sourcing and export practices.

Lead poisoning is a preventable travesty and an environmental injustice. Let’s work together to throw it in the dustbin of history.

About the author

Rachel Silverman Bonnifield is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington DC and London-based think tank, and head of the CGD’s Working Group on Lead Poisoning. 

Image Credits: US EPA, CC.

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