Lead Contaminated Water and Global Decontamination Efforts

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SEATTLE, Washington — In April 2014, Flint, Michigan changed the city’s water supply to the Flint River under financial duress. Lead-contaminated water quickly filled the city’s pipes, leaving Flint residents amidst a disaster. After nearly six years, Flint has yet to recover but is pushing forward after receiving substantial support. However, many communities around the world are experiencing the same contamination indefinitely and with little or no support at all.

Lead is a deadly neurotoxin that was named one of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 10 most threatening public health concerns. UNICEF also reports that one-third of the world’s children are poisoned by lead, specifically in lower-income nations that cannot easily fight contamination. Luckily, international nonprofit organizations like Pure Earth are taking action to help countries overcome this common killer.

Poverty and Contamination

Beyond public health consequences, the crisis in Flint sparked national outrage in the U.S. because the contaminated water disproportionately affected minority communities. The dirtiest water flowed into these areas quickly and without warning. As a result, Hip-hop artist Mama Sol proclaims the treatment of Black people in the Flint crisis as a “cultural genocide” in the documentary “Faces of Flint: Hard to Swallow.”

Struggling families in Flint were commanded to pay their water bills despite the diseased water dripping from their faucets. Although the situation in Flint is not the model for typical contamination crises, it is crucial for the general populous to understand how poor, oppressed or disadvantaged groups are the most vulnerable victims.

The economic factors behind lead-contaminated water typically have deeper roots in impoverished nations that lack aid, infrastructure and support. Long-term lead exposure lowers gross domestic product (GDP) levels and devours economic potential. The economic limitation comes not only as a result of the workforce falling ill but also from lead-attributable intelligence quotient (IQ) reduction in the long-term.

In addition to hindering economic growth, lead-contaminated water harms countries developmentally. For example, with water sources being few and far between, many must drive to retrieve water. Increases in vehicle ownership demand larger recycling capacities. However, in countries where recycling is not as organized, well-financed or regulated, it is difficult to keep pace.

Causes

Lead contaminates water, food and other ordinary items in multiple ways. Industrial growth, unclean piping systems, inadequate disposal methods and agricultural mishaps play fundamental roles in rising lead levels. Bangladesh, in particular, suffers from improper lead-acid battery disposal, which affects 35.5 million children. Recycling practices in Bangladesh often give off open-air emissions close to communities. Blood lead levels are, therefore, well above the globally accepted maximum and are the 11th highest in the world. Other common sources of lead contamination include gasoline, paint, food cans, cosmetics, spices and toys.

The Philippines also has alarmingly high blood lead levels due to its rapid growth. An increase in the prevalence of agricultural practices over the last decade has contaminated clean water sources due to runoff. Strong rainfall in the archipelago causes water to move over the surface of the ground instead of seeping into the soil. This process gathers pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants, accounting for more than 800,000 metric tons of organic pollution in the Philippines.

Effects of Lead Exposure

Toxic water contamination negatively affects more than 200 million people worldwide, a number comparable to HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria patients. Anemia, reproductive organ toxicity, kidney damage and cardiovascular disease are the most common symptoms of poisoning. Unfortunately, women and children are more likely to develop neurologic and immune system damage from the contamination.

Childhood lead exposure leads to an increased risk of developing mental disabilities and behavioral disorders. Shortened attention spans, antisocial behavior and reduced IQs disrupt education and contribute to the cycle of poverty. Fortunately, there are several steps parents, schools and communities can take to combat contamination.

Pollution Solutions

  1. Prevention: Avoid paints, toys and other items that may contain lead.
  2. Case Reporting: Establish easy ways for victims to report symptoms.
  3. Treatment and Detection: Provide cognitive behavioral therapy to manage symptoms.
  4. Protection and Education: Conduct education campaigns about lead sources and dangers.
  5. Legislation and Policy: Create environmental, health and safety standards for recycling and manufacturing.

Pure Earth

Pure Earth is committed to reducing contamination in low-income countries that need financial support to implement prevention programs. In partnership with the U.N., the World Bank, the U.S. Department of State, 21 government agencies and 34 other NGOs, Pure Earth has conducted more than 120 projects. These projects have impacted five million adults and one million children. The organization tailors its efforts specifically to each pollution site and supports local action by dividing projects into three categories:

  • Small Scale Clean-Ups: These are low-cost contamination sites that generally inspire further action. The operations require up to $100,000, community technical support and typically last one year.
  • Large Scale Clean-Ups: Local coalition formation is the primary goal of large-scale clean-ups. Local leaders and government agency representatives work together to develop pollution prevention plans through coalitions.
  • Active Sites: These are locations where industrial or mining activities cause on-going pollution. At these sites, Pure Earth conducts health impact analyses and presents pollutant reduction plans to owners of the contamination-causing corporations.

Pure Earth’s efforts are changing world reactions to contamination and how countries seek solutions. Nations recently rejecting leaded gasoline are already experiencing declines in blood lead levels. By welcoming aid and implementing realistic, cost-effective solutions to clean up lead-contaminated water, the return on investment for these countries will be enormous. Citizens will have improved health and productivity levels, higher IQs and brighter futures — all characteristics crucial to poverty alleviation.

Natalie Clark
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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