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Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead

In the context of the International lead poisoning prevention week, the World Health Organisation is clear: lead is a global health problem that should not be overlooked. Lead has therefore been included in a list of 10 chemicals that cause serious public health problems which will require the intervention of member states to protect the health of children, workers and women of childbearing age.

Beyond its industrial use (metallurgy, mining), this substance is present in many products such as pigments, paints, welding material, stained glass, glassware, ammunition, ceramic glazes, jewellery and toys, as well as some cosmetic products and traditional medicines.

Dr Pilar Muñoz-Calero, an expert in environmental medicine and director of Blue Healthcare’s Longevity Area, explains that “there are several sources and routes of exposure to lead, but the most common are inhalation and ingestion. The lead particles inhaled are those generated by the combustion of materials containing this metal; for example, during smelting activities, recycling in unsafe conditions, paint and leaded petrol, which still exists. The second route is via ingesting dust, water or contaminated food, such as water delivered through lead pipes or food packaged in lead-soldered containers.”

Among the health consequences of this toxic exposure, our expert points out that “it can cause anaemia, hypertension, renal dysfunction, immunotoxicity and reproductive toxicity. The neurological and behavioural effects associated with lead are thought to be irreversible. Lead is be distributed in the body to the brain, liver, kidneys and bones; it will be deposited mostly in teeth and bones, but also in some other tissues. Lead stored in the bones may be remobilised in the blood during pregnancy, with the consequent risk to the foetus.”

Young children are the most vulnerable

Dr Muñoz-Calero explains why young children are the most vulnerable to this poison: “Very young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead as it can have serious and permanent consequences on their health, and in particular affect brain and nervous system development. Younger children can absorb an amount of lead between 4 and 5 times greater than adults. Also, as we all know, children’s innate curiosity leads to mouthing and makes them more likely to suck or swallow contaminated objects.”

Blue Healthcare’s Longevity Area director also adds that “certain concentrations of lead in the blood can be associated with a decrease in the child’s intelligence, as well as behavioural problems and learning difficulties.”

Ways in which children can come into contact with lead include lead paint, some toys, pieces of jewellery and some foods that are stored in lead crystal glassware, among others.

Adequate information and staying away from the various materials that contain lead concentrations are two of the main preventive measures that can help us avoid contamination from this chemical element. “We can always find alternatives on the market, focusing more on our health when making small choices, such as buying a simple lipstick”, says our expert.

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