Message of the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week 2017

From 22-28 October 2017, the World Health Organization will join the global community to commemorate the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

This year’s theme, “Lead Free Kids for a Healthy Future”, draws attention to the urgent need for decisive action to eliminate lead poisoning, which kills nearly half a million people worldwide every year. Last year lead poisoning accounted for about 22,605 deaths in Africa. WHO ranks exposure to lead among the top ten chemicals threatening public health in Africa. 

Lead poisoning is preventable, yet the widespread use of lead-containing products, including paints and gasoline, continues to pose major risks to public health. Lead-based paints remain the most important source of exposure. Unlike many advanced economies which regulate lead in paints, as of February 2017, only three countries in the WHO African region have binding laws to restrict the use of lead in paint, the lowest number across regions. 

Lead is added to paints to enhance color, dryness and prevent corrosion, with significant risks to public health. As lead paint ages, it flakes and crumbles, creating lead contaminated dust. Children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning. When lead paint is used in homes, schools, and playgrounds, children can easily ingest dust or paint flakes by putting their hands in their mouths.

Generally, exposure produces a range of irreversible injuries including loss of cognition, short attention span and hypertension, among others. A lead poisoned child will have difficulties in school and may engage in impulsive and violent behaviour. The effects are life-long with enormous cost on families, communities, and economies in terms of lost productivity.

Prevention remains key and cost effective. A study in the United States shows that for every $1 spent to reduce lead hazards, the returns are up to 220 times greater, making it one of the single most cost-beneficial medical or public health interventions. South Africa and other countries which have enforceable regulations of lead-based paints have successfully reduced the level of lead in children.

However, while most African governments have made great strides in eliminating lead from gasoline, much greater effort is required to regulate lead in paints. Lead-free alternative paints of comparable quality and prices already exist, and it is more cost-effective to ban lead containing paint and promote lead-free alternatives, than to remediate contaminated homes, schools and playgrounds. Laws and regulations are critical to promote their use and protect human and environmental health.

Ensuring an environment free of lead requires the effort of all stakeholders. WHO has partnered with UNEP and key industry associations to form the global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, whose broad goal is to phase out the manufacture and sale of lead containing paints and eventually eliminate the risks that such paints pose.

Countries in the African region are being guided by WHO’s comprehensive strategy to better manage environmental determinants of human health, including the sound management of chemicals.  In addition, the African ChemObs project is a new initiative between WHO and UNEP to help countries  to develop a model system for integrating their national health and environment data on priority chemicals. The goal is to provide countries with timely and evidence based information on risks which will better support them to formulate appropriate preventive strategies to protect human health from exposure to toxic chemicals including lead.

For communities, schools and households, WHO has a range of materials freely available on its website to increase awareness, educate communities about the risks of lead, and support approaches to protect children’s health and environment. 

Everyone has a role to play to keep the places where our children live and play lead-free. As we commemorate the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, I call on everyone - policy makers, health care professionals, painters, corporates, consumers, communities, families and parents - to support efforts to ban lead in paints. Let’s all work together to keep our kids lead-free for a healthy future.