Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust. Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world. Important sources of environmental contamination come from mining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling activities and use in a wide range of products.
Deaths due to lead poisoning have continued to rise in India. A recent government report includes battery recycling, occupational sources such as lead mining, smelting, welding, soldering and automobile repatriating. Other inconspicuous sources include adulterated spices, cosmetics and traditional medicines.
India accounted for 275,561,163 of the 800 million children suffering from lead poisoning globally according to the 2020 UNICEF report. This number meant that half of India’s children were poisoned by lead.
Not only this, a UNICEF report also noted that lead poisoning shaved off an estimated five per cent of Indian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to lower economic productivity and reduced lifetime earnings. It also caused 230,000 premature deaths in India.
LINKAGE POINT: The role of social inequalities in lead-poisoning can be presented as follows:
- 1. While cases of lead poisoning can be found across the world, it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations in low and middle-income countries. In India, over 2,30,000 people die due to lead exposure, every year. The country accounts for 26% of annual global deaths.
- 2. The more vulnerable groups – mostly pregnant women and children are most affected by lead poisoning according to data. Notably, children soak up four to five times as much ingested lead as old people.
- 3. Social inequalities play a significant role in determining which sections of the population suffer the highest exposure to lead, either due to the occupations they are engaged in or the environment they inhabit. For e.g. people involved in waste segregation and recycling batteries are at greatest risk.
- 4. Pure Earth estimated that over 50% of the batteries in India are recycled in the informal sector which implies the poor people based in poorest states are affected most. A report prepared jointly by government think tank NITI Aayog and the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) indicated that Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh had the highest average blood lead levels (BLL) among Indian states, according to the report. These states account for 40 per cent of India’s population that is plagued with this poor health indicator.
- 5. Those living close to toxic sites, primarily comprising poor and marginalized populations, suffer greater exposure too.
- 6. Lead exposure is increased by “residential segregation, concentrated poverty, discrimination in housing markets, neighborhood disinvestment, and a limited array of options for tenants seeking to remove lead from their environments.” Reports have also pointed to racial disparities in health risks posed by lead contamination.
- 7. Unequal exposure patterns can also lead to inter-generational poverty due to previous lead exposure, where the cognitive effects of lead pollution may make it difficult for people to rise out of poverty through education or formal employment.
Also, there are strong links between lead poisoning and poverty, tying economic insecurities, along with limited social, physical or health protections, with greater exposure to sources of pollution.
There is an immediate need for policy changes at the national and state levels given the severe health implications. Identifying at-risk populations, investigating sources, training healthcare personnel to detect and treat lead poisoning and strengthening research in order to identify new sources.