From 20 to 26 October 2019, WHO joins the global community in advocacy for International Lead Poisoning Prevention to save lives and improve well-being.
This year, the focus is on eliminating lead paint. In the African Region, as economies grow, and more people can afford brightly coloured paints to decorate their homes, the risk of poisoning from lead paint is increasing. No known level of exposure to lead is safe, yet we can come into contact with lead paint in our work places, schools and homes. WHO ranks lead exposure among the top 10 chemical risks to public health.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and are more likely to ingest contaminated soil, dust and paint flakes. Undernourished children are more susceptible because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients are lacking.
Lead exposure has risen faster in Africa over the last decade than in any other WHO region, with 47 000 deaths each year. Globally, exposure to lead accounts for over 63.2% of unexplained developmental intellectual disabilities, 5.6% of the burden of ischaemic heart diseases, 6% of strokes and 3.6% of chronic kidney disease.
The health impacts last a lifetime, with crippling costs for families, communities and countries. In the African Region, lead poisoning costs an estimated US$ 135 billion every year in lost productivity.
As with so many health interventions, prevention is more effective and cheaper than treatment. A study in the United States of America showed that every US$ 1 invested to prevent lead hazards, returned up to US$ 221.
We have known of the health impacts of lead for a long time. Countries committed to phase out lead paints by 2020, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 – 17 years ago. However, as of May 2019, so far across the Region, only Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania have enacted bans.
In 2017, the World Health Assembly endorsed the WHO Chemicals Road Map and renewed commitment to reduce the risk of lead exposure. Through the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Global Environment Facility project, WHO and partners are supporting 30 countries in the African Region to enact and implement laws and standards to ensure paint is free from added lead by 2022.
While some manufacturers have voluntarily stopped including lead in paint, they are still widely available and without nation-wide bans, along with adequate enforcement mechanisms, communities will remain at risk.
Now is the time for governments, industry, civil society and consumers to act. We have already successfully eliminated lead in gasoline. With collective action, we can ban the manufacture, import, sale and use of lead paints in Africa, for better health in our communities and for future generations.