Despite the phase-out of leaded gasoline, exposure to lead is still having a massive impact on the hearts and minds of the world’s population. As per new research, the current impact of lead poisoning is far greater than previously thought, accounting for 5.5 million cardiovascular disease deaths and 765 million lost IQ points in 2019.
Acting as a neurotoxin, exposure to lead in the environment has been linked to the reduction of IQ scores, poorer mental health, lower impulse control, and even increased violence. It effectively changed the personality of a whole generation of people born in the 20th century.
Aware of this damning reel of evidence, the World Bank called for a global phase-out of leaded gasoline in May 1996. The phase-out wasn’t completed until 2021 when Algeria became the last country to ban it.
However, the influence of lead is still lingering in poorer parts of the world. A new report by Pure Earth, the most extensive of its kind to date, found high rates of lead contamination in cooking equipment, paint, cosmetics, and toys.
Researchers collected and analyzed over 5,000 consumer and food products from 70 marketplaces across 25 low- and middle-income countries, concluding that 18 percent had lead levels exceeding their relevant safety regulations.
Paired with this, researchers at the World Bank have recently re-assessed the global health burden of lead exposure around the world. While they found that levels of lead in the blood had declined substantially since the phase-out of leaded gasoline, the impact on health was still vast.
Their findings suggested that the estimated IQ loss and deaths from cardiovascular disease were about 80 percent higher and 6 times greater, respectively, than previous estimates. On average, lead exposure accounted for the loss of 5.9 IQ points per child over their first five years of life in the impacted areas.
Once again, up to 95 percent of the burden was being felt in low- and middle-income countries.
Given these findings, the researchers believe the world needs to reevaluate the impact of lead on global health and readjust their policies accordingly. Lead pollution is often treated as a problem of the past, but it remains just as damaging as ever in some parts of the planet.
“This study indicates that the damaging health effects from lead exposure are even greater than we previously thought, and that they come at a very high economic cost, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Consequently, improved quality of blood lead level measurements, lead exposure identification, research, policies, and practices are urgently needed to address that burden,” Bjorn Larsen, former World Bank environmental economist and study author, said in a statement.
“Development agencies investing in education, maternal and child health, heart disease, and stroke, need to consider how damage from lead exposure may be undermining those investments. Currently, the spend on lead within development aid is a pittance – around $10 million, in contrast to nearly $10 billion for HIV and over $2 billion for malaria, both of which have much lower casualty rates. It’s clear there needs to be a rebalancing among aid agencies globally,” added Pure Earth president Richard Fuller, who was an advisor for the World Bank report.
The new study by the World Bank is published in The Lancet Planetary Health.