EACH year, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics, childhood lead exposure causes an estimated 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities and 143,000 deaths.
99 per cent of the victims live in low- and middleincome countries', which include Tanzania.
Experts say lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in the earth's crust. Prior to current knowledge of its health hazards, it was widely used in products such as gasoline, batteries, metal products, crystal, food cans, fishing sinkers and ammunition.
It is also contained in paints. It is well known for its anti-corrosive properties and has been extensively used in construction industry. Despite its seemingly usefulness, lead poisoning is said to be the number one environmental health concern for children globally, with lead paint as a major flashpoint for children's potential lead poisoning.
"In this day and age, it is quite frankly breathtaking that parents painting their child's nursery a cheerful red, or handing their child a colourful toy may, through no fault of their own be exposing that child to a pernicious and damaging toxin: lead," said Nick Nuttall, UN Environment Programme's Spokesperson and Director of Communications recently.
Indeed, more than 90 years after the League of Nations called for a ban on lead in paint, and despite the existence of many safe alternatives, young children and pregnant mothers in the developing world are still exposed to high levels of the dangerous toxin through unsafe paints.
It is against this background the first ever International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action (Theme: "Eliminating Lead in Paints") under the auspices of the United Nations was marked from October 20-26, this year.
The event aimed at raising awareness about lead poisoning, highlight efforts to prevent childhood lead poisoning, and to urge further action to eliminate lead paint.
As the main organiser, the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (GAELP), which is jointly coordinated by the UNEP and the WHO, invited governments, industries, civil society groups and other stakeholders to support and participate in the Week of Action.
As a key stakeholder in the awareness campaign, the Executive Secretary of Dar es Salaam-based Agenda for Environment and Responsible Development (AGENDA) Silvani Mng'anya called for concerted efforts by the government and other stakeholders to address the lead exposure problem.
Registered in 1997, AGENDA is a non-governmental, non profit sharing organisation (NGO) whose mission is to promote a culture of responsibility to the environment amongst the general public through advocacy, capacity building and stakeholders' involvement in Tanzania and beyond.
Giving AGENDA's situational analysis on lead paint in Tanzania, Mr Mng'anya says today paints are still sold with added lead in developing countries and countries with economies in transition such as Tanzania. He says this was demonstrated during a Global Study on Lead in Paint in 2009 conducted by Toxics Link, the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) in collaboration with NGOs in various countries.
AGENDA was amongst the partners who participated in the said study, which collected 20 samples of oil based paint available in Tanzanian market. 19 out of 20 paints had lead levels above 450 parts per million (PPM). On what the law says about Lead Paint in Tanzania, the Agenda boss says the study in 2009 and a follow-up one last year, noted that there was a voluntary standard set by the Tanzania Bureau of Standards which indicates Lead in Paint should not exceed 450 ppm or 0.045%.
"Also the Industrial and Consumer Chemicals Act No. 3 of 2003 Sect. 30 support the restriction, banning and elimination of all proven dangerous and toxic chemicals to human health and environment and chemicals which are subjected to action according to international Convention or Treaty ratified in the United Republic of Tanzania.
However, there are no specific laws or regulations on lead in paint in Tanzania." He says human exposure to lead is mainly through inhalation, ingestion, or in a small number of cases, absorption through the skin. "Lead has the same affinity for our biological systems as essential minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc.
Lead causes harm wherever it deposits in the body. In the blood stream, for example, it damages red blood cells and limits their ability to carry oxygen to tissues and organs. Most lead ends up in the bones, where it interferes with the production of blood cells and the absorption of calcium that bone needs to grow healthy and strong.'
According to experts, young children are most vulnerable as their growing bodies absorb lead more easily than adults. Even low level of lead exposure may harm their intellectual development, growth, behaviour and hearing. Furthermore, during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, lead can cross the placenta and affect the unborn child.
Female workers exposed to high levels of lead have higher risk of miscarriages and still births. Also people with occupational exposure to lead, like painters, renovators, workers in refineries and smelters, have higher risk of lead poisoning.
A study by the UN Environment Programme, released during the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action, analysed enamel decorative paints from nine countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia and Uruguay.
The report found that the majority of the paints tested would not meet regulatory standards established in most highly industrialised countries- for example, 90 parts per million (ppm) in the United States and Canada-and that some contain astonishingly high and dangerous levels of lead.
While the report covers nine countries, previous research by IPEN and others shows that lead levels remain high in other countries with economies in transition. For example, a study published in September 2012 by the Kenyan NGO iLima found an average lead concentration of 14,900 ppm in 31 samples of household paint.
Over the last seven years, similar studies found equally unsettling concentrations in other African nations: Cameroon, 23,100 ppm; Egypt, 26,200; Nigeria (two studies), 37,000 and 15,750 ppm; Senegal 5,870 ppm; South Africa, 19,860; and Tanzania 14,500 ppm. Worldwide, 30 countries have already phased out the use of lead paint.
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by WHO and UNEP, has set a target of 70 countries by 2015. "While this study shows many nations face a grave problem, it always very clearly demonstrates that established and enforced government regulations on lead levels in paint have a strong positive impact," said Sara Brosche, Project Manager for IPEN's lead paint projects.
"However, paint manufacturers have a responsibility to act on their own, particularly when there is virtually no associated negative economic impact for their businesses. There is absolutely no reason why paints with high levels of lead should continue to be sold and poison children."
The report recommends action in three distinct areas: Regulatory Frameworks: National efforts to promote the establishment of an appropriate legal and regulatory framework to control the manufacture, import, export, sale and use of lead paints and products coated with lead paints should be encouraged.
The evidence of paints with very low lead contents coexisting in the market with equivalent lead paint suggests there should be few economic barriers to the introduction of legal or regulatory controls and the elimination of lead paint. Public Awareness: There is a need for information campaigns in countries where results show the presence of lead paint on the market.
These campaigns should inform the public about the hazards of lead exposure, especially in children; the presence of lead decorative paints for sale and use on the national market; lead paint as a significant source of childhood lead exposure; and availability of technically superior and safer alternatives.
Voluntary Action and Labelling: Paint manufacturers in countries that lack a well-enforced national lead paint control regime are encouraged to eliminate lead compounds from their paint formulations, especially of those paints likely to contribute to lead exposure in children and others.
Paint manufacturers also are encouraged to consider voluntary participation in programmes that provide third party paint certification that no lead has been added to their paint, and to label products in ways that help consumers identify paints that do not contain added lead.
Indeed the seriousness of the problem calls for need to raise awareness among governments, manufacturers and consumers not just that the problem exists, but that there are cheap and safe alternatives to lead already in use that can lift this health burden in a very short time.
"The good news is that exposure to lead paint can be entirely stopped through a range of measures to restrict the production and use of lead paint," said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment.