7 no 1, 1999
Lead Poisoning in India
By Mike van Alphen, Lead Sense, PO Box 3421, Rundle Mall South Australia 5000
The recent conference [8th - 10th February 1999] on lead poisoning in Bangalore India, run by The George Foundation highlighted the results of a major blood lead survey of Indian children. Called "Project Lead Free" the study involved the collection of approximately 22,000 samples from children, pregnant women and workers in the battery and paint industries. While the investigations took place variously from Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Vellore and Hyderabad the overwhelming number of samples were from the Bangalore area.
Preliminary compilations of results for children under 12 years based on just PbB (lead in blood) data indicated that PbB was greater than 10 µg/dL for 51.4 % of children in India. The statistics may well be more telling for children less than 5 years old for example but this data was not available.
The range of Pb (lead) exposure sources in India is extensive and as yet not well understood. A great deal of concern was placed on the effect of urban population growth, increased vehicle ownership and the number of smokey two-stroke motor vehicles using leaded petrol. During the conference a plan was announced to phase out Pb petrol from March 2000. [Ed. Note: this is well ahead of Australias planned phase-out date of December 2003 for leaded petrol.]
Key suspected population-wide sources of Pb were considered to be water supplies, and tinned eating utensils. The common practice of using a Pb-Sn (lead-tin) alloy to coat the inside of copper eating utensils is considered to have potentially widespread impacts. Vessels and pipe works for drinking water are also of concern but there is limited information. Cows foraging on roadsides were considered to pose some risk of passing on Pb in milk but more information specifically connecting environmental Pb levels with Pb in cows milk appeared to be required. This was an issue of some sensitivity. More generally the potential for passing Pb into food through containers such as soldered cans were considered but little could be said of the extent of this exposure. Discussions of soldered tins perhaps represent more recent western experience, however perhaps of more relevance to India could be the practice of wrapping foodstuffs in newspaper. Pb is still present in both printing inks and typemetals in India. Given the common processes of grinding spices and grains - there are numerous opportunities for the incorporation of Pb in foods due to the wear of machinery bushings, brass fittings and tinned metal surfaces. The manufacture of hooch using car radiators for condensing alcohol, is just one example of a widespread problem with unregulated manufacturing in India. The degree to which Pb was recycled in the community was also of concern. For example vehicle sump oil containing Pb used for other purposes such as starting cooking fires.
There are more idiosyncratic Pb poisoning sources but Pb-based eye - liner for example and folk medicines are still widespread. The state of Indias consumer protection laws, from the absence of implemented poisons regulations to the absence of appropriate labelling and descriptions of goods are in need of attention. One tragic case of Pb poisoning included the adulteration of ice-cream with white lead. Lead has been used as an adulterant or weighting agent in foods and other goods.
Of major concern are the cottage industry hot-spots for example silversmiths, print shops, brass works, small Pb battery assembly workshops, radiator repair workshops, and other such workshops in home settings or where young children have ready access.
Paint Pb exposure was one area that was least well understood. The extent of paint in urban and rural settings was likely to vary greatly. However some indication was given that 10% of Pb consumed in India was used in paint. A quick post-conference survey by the writer based on over the counter paints from Bangalore and Chennai revealed the ready availability of Pb chromate paints. Of 24 paints purchased, 13 had Pb concentrations in excess of 1% by weight and 5 were > 10% Pb. None of these paints were labelled as to appropriate use. This finding is just indicative of the many problems with consumer protection in India. These paints were also analysed courtesy of JBS Environmental Services and Technologies of Sydney and the quality of data from the portable XRF was demonstrated to be very respectable.
In terms of national child Pb exposure reduction strategies, priorities are still being evaluated and more information is required. In terms of cases of advanced clinical Pb poisoning and death; hot-spot investigations and intervention in cottage industries are likely to return good results. Removing Pb from petrol however was the easiest step to take in lowering community PbB. Much more remains to be done.
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