At Davos: USAID Launches New Initiative to Tackle Global Plague of Lead Poisoning
A man melts lead metallic wastes, often used in the production of cooking pots, at a recycling warehouse in Koumassi, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

The US government will commit $4 million to tackle lead poisoning, supporting developing countries to curtail lead in consumer goods like paints and toys in which the use of lead is still widespread, USAID administrator Samantha Power announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Power also called for more resources and action towards the issue that kills nearly a million people, mostly children, every year, and affects the brain and neurological development of one in two children in low- and middle-income countries.

“For decades lead has poisoned kids in their classrooms, their bedrooms, their playgrounds, led lurks in the food that kids eat, the water they drink, the medicines they take, and of course the paint, brightening their bedroom walls and the toys that are helping them learn and grow,” she said at a press conference Thursday.

Currently, funding by donors toward lead mitigation efforts is approximately $15 million per year.

“Lead poisoning affects hundreds of millions of children worldwide, contributing to educational gaps and harming health and development. The US government’s commitment to make this a development priority is a welcome turning point,” said Susannah Hares, senior policy fellow and director of education at the think tank Center for Global Development.

USAID is the agency responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance on behalf of the US government. At Davos, Power advocated for a global drive to support rolling out and enforcing binding regulations to curtail lead in consumer goods ranging from paints to spices, and cosmetics.

Control over consumer goods like paint, spices, and cosmetics contaminated with lead can save millions of lives.

Lead – a potent neurotoxin

Lead is a potent neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure, and lead poisoning can cause severe brain damage, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Globally, lead poisoning kills around a million people each year – more than mortality caused by HIV and malaria combined. A majority of these deaths are concentrated in poor countries.

WHO has identified lead as one of 10 chemicals of major public health concern needing action by member states to protect the health of workers, children, and women of reproductive age, as lead can be transferred from a pregnant mother to the fetus.

Lead can affect children’s brain development, resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), causing behavioural changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behaviour, and reduced educational attainment. This affects a society fundamentally.

Pilots in India and South Africa

USAID administrator Samantha Power speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The $4 million will be used to lead mitigation efforts in India and South Africa. USAID will support local governments in developing strategies and addressing exposure risks, especially amongst children, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead. The agency will also help with a nationwide survey of blood lead levels in children in Bangladesh, Power said in her remarks.

USAID will also join the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, a partnership that has catalyzed legally binding controls on lead paint in almost 40 countries. The partnership is coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

USAID has missions in more than 80 countries. Around 51 of these countries are yet to introduce binding regulations on lead in paint, so the agency is well-positioned to advocate for and support lead mitigation efforts.

While lead in petrol has been phased out in all countries, lead in paint continues to be a cause of wide concern.

The challenge of enforcement

Lead poisoning is costing Africa $134 million each year, said Tanzania’s Labour Minister Mudrick Soragha at the Davos event. “And now I’m very happy to note that there’s a general consensus within the global community that we need to get rid of this harmful chemical substance. And for us it is critically important as a country to note that we are not alone in the fight.”

Soragha said that given the weaker health and regulatory systems in many low- and middle-income countries, effective response is a challenge.

“The issue is how to have the proper mechanism of enforcing those regulations, and making sure that our regulatory bodies have the capacity to be able to identify the products that have lead, and how to remove them,” Soragha added.

It is clear that the response will have to be global. “To eliminate lead poisoning, is an ambitious but achievable goal, as evidenced by the huge strides taken by countries like Bangladesh and Georgia. But if this is to happen, it’s crucial for other countries and donors to join the effort and invest in monitoring, proven solutions, and research,” Hares said.

Image Credits: EPA/L. Koula, Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.

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