(AFP/Medline Plus/Mayo Clinic)
Childhood lead exposure is costing low and middle income countries (LMICs) US$977 billion annually due to reduced intelligence quotients (IQs)and earning losses, with the economic cost estimated to reach over $15 billion in the Philippines, the second highest in Southeast Asia.
Citing data from a recently-released study by pediatric and environmental medicine experts from New York University, the EcoWaste Coalition expressed concern that childhood lead exposure could already be costing the country US$ 15,019,373,494 in lost lifetime economic productivity (LEP) per year due to lead-attributable IQ loss.
The study authored by Dr. Teresa Attina and Dr. Leonardo Trasande of the NYU School of Medicine and published online in the Environmental Health Perspectives last June 25 is the first to gauge the economic cost of children’s exposure to lead in the developing regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The estimated $15B shortfalls in economic productivity due to early exposure to lead, a chemical poison that can permanently damage the brain, should jolt government and industry decision makers to swiftly act towards eliminating all major sources of childhood lead poisoning, starting with the low hanging fruits,” said Von Hernandez, President, EcoWaste Coalition.
Examples of these low hanging fruits, or easily achievable targets that do not require a lot of effort, are the immediate phase-out of leaded architectural, decorative or household paints, the ban on lead in toys, school supplies and other children’s products, the prohibition on lead in ceramic glazes and products, and the proscription on lead as pigment or stabilizer for polyvinyl chloride plastic, the EcoWaste Coalition said.
Other major sources of childhood lead exposure as identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) include lead solder in food cans, lead in electronic waste, lead released by incineration of lead-containing waste, lead in the food chain via contaminated soil and lead in petrol, which has been phased out in the Philippines and most of the world.
According to WHO, “the consequences of brain injury from exposure to lead in early life are loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behaviour.”
“Because the human brain has little capacity for repair, these effects are untreatable and irreversible. They cause diminution in brain function and reduction in achievement that last throughout life,” the WHO said.
On the basis of this mind-blowing economic losses attributed to lead exposure, the EcoWaste Coalition also asked decision makers to draw up a national program to systematically arrest childhood lead exposure at source, including systematic screening, surveillance and prevention of lead poisoning.
“Despite a decline in blood lead concentration worldwide, lead exposure still represents a major contributor to children intellectual disability in many LMICs. This, in turn, translates into significant earning losses over a lifetime, which we estimated at 1.20% of the world GDP. Economic losses due to lead exposures in children will continue unless measures to prevent lead exposure are implemented in all countries,” Drs. Attina and Trasande said.
“Without adequate preventive measures, the cost of inaction is represented by substantial economic losses and health consequences for society as a whole for generations to come,” the authors said.
Using a regression model, the authors calculated how much blood lead levels in children under 5 years of age would lower IQ points and then computed how much of their earnings would drop due to early childhood lead exposure.
The authors limited their cost estimates to the neuro-developmental impact of lead, which is assessed as decrements in IQ points, and excluded costs of mild mental retardation, costs of lead exposure later in life such as heart diseases, and costs of criminality and violence due to lack of data in developing regions.
Based on the authors’ calculations, childhood lead exposure has resulted to huge annual economic losses equal to $134.7 billion in Africa, $142.3 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, and $699.9 billion in Asia.
In Southeast Asia, childhood lead exposure is costing Indonesia $37.9 billion, Philippines $15 billion, Thailand $12 billion, Malaysia $11.8 billion, Vietnam $7.7 billion, Myanmar $3.2 billion, Cambodia $1.3 billion, Laos $719 million and Timor Leste $73 million per year.
Abstract of the Study:
“Economic Costs of Childhood Lead Exposure in Low- and Middle-Income Countries”
Teresa M. Attina and Leonardo Trasande
Methods: We developed a regression model to estimate mean blood lead levels in our population of interest, represented by each 1-year cohort of children under 5 years of age. We used an environmentally attributable fraction model to estimate lead-attributable economic costs and limited our analysis to the neurodevelopmental impacts of lead, assessed as decrements in intellectual quotient (IQ) points. Our main outcome was lost lifetime economic productivity due to early childhood exposure.
Results: We estimate a total cost of $977 billions of international dollars in low- and middle-income countries, with economic losses equal to $134.7 billion in Africa (4.03% of GDP), $142.3 in Latin America and the Caribbean (2.04% of GDP), and $699.9 in Asia (1.88% of GDP). Our sensitivity analysis indicates a total economic loss in the range of $728.6-1,162.5 billion.
Conclusions: We estimate that, in low- and middle-income countries, the burden associated with childhood lead exposure amounts to 1.20% of world GDP in 2011. For comparison, US and Europe lead-attributable economic costs have been estimated at $50.9 and $55 billion, respectively, suggesting that the largest burden of lead exposure is now borne by low- and middle-income countries.