Toxic Playpens: Children and Lead Pollution

Published Date: 29 September 2009

© IAEA In Maverly, St. Andrew, approximately 3km from Jamaica's capital city Kingston, Sherene Thompson (left) and her children Shane (centre) and Sasha-Gaye (right) stand at the entrance to their house during the summer. The Thompson yard was once used for smelting lead from used car batteries. Shane, 8, was held back for two grades in school when he was younger. Research has linked early lead exposure to extreme learning disability, which is thought to be irreversible. Shane and Sasha-Gaye's father, Paul, ran a small business recycling lead from car batteries. The Thompsons' yard (shown here) was filled with used lead acid batteries. Paul would smelt the lead plates at the back of his property (shown here). This was before he knew of the risks it posed to his children's health. The property was cleared of used car batteries, and the topsoil was dug up. Then the land was covered with marl and layers of new topsoil to stop further lead pollution. The remediation was funded by the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica. Since the remediation, the Thompsons have started a garden filled with vegetables and fruit trees. Sasha-Gaye has begun high school, and no longer becomes ill. Maverly isn't the only place in Jamaica affected by lead in the soil. The communities of Kintyre and Hope Flats, St. Andrew-about 11km from Kingston-were built on the site of a lead mine that had been abandoned for centuries. Both communities are still littered with pure mine waste to this day. The local preschool was unwittingly built on an old lead dumping site. However action was taken and the play area has been fully covered by concrete to protect the children from the toxic lead in the soil underneath. A direct link has been found between early lead exposure, hyperactivity, violence and lethargy. Too much lead in the body interferes with the normal development of the brain, the central nervous system, the kidney and the heart. Infants and young children can absorb as much as five to 10 times more lead than adults, because chemically, lead and calcium are similar and both enter the body in the same way and are stored in the bones. Lead absorption has been linked to poor nutrition, especially to deficiencies in calcium, iron and phosphorous. Increasing calcium intake in particular, reduces the amount of pollutants the body can absorb. So along with containing the lead-filled dirt with concrete, the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) and charity organisations sponsored a yearlong programme to increase students' protein intake. They were given free milk and cheese every day. Six months into the new feeding programme, the student's blood lead levels were found to have dropped dramatically. All children who are found to be lead poisoned are treated free of cost at the country's hospitals, in particular the Bustamante Hospital for Children, which is the island's only hospital specifically for children. In Jamaica, the IAEA supports research into lead and other heavy metals at ICENS. The IAEA provides equipment, training and fellowships for scientists at research institutes in developing Member States, in order to enable these institutions to apply scientific methods to their countries' unique development problems. The IAEA provided ICENS with a total reflection x-ray fluorescence (TXRF) unit, as well as high-purity germanium photon detectors (shown here) which are involved in testing soil, plant, water and blood samples for the presence of lead and other toxins. In Red Pond, St. Catherine, 40km from Kingston, Nicola (centre) and Gary (right) are also victims of lead poisoning, and still suffer serious health effects from exposure as young children. Their mother Carol (left) says many children have died from lead poisoning in the semi-rural community of Red Pond. The US-based Blacksmith Institute estimates that 120 million people around the world are affected by lead in the environment. 20-year-old Nicola (left) hasn't spoken since she was three, and is now confined to a wheelchair. 1999 - In Red Pond, workmen clear away the remains of old car batteries and soil filled with lead. The community was cleaned up with funds from Blue Cross of Jamaica. The residents' yards were also covered with marl to help prevent further damage to children and other residents. About 12km from Kingston, the sprawling squatter settlement of Mona Commons, St. Andrew, was also polluted by lead. This standpipe was the main source of water and a play area. This was also the main lead smelting site. Despite remediation efforts, the soil's lead content remains unacceptably high. Globally, lead smelting is prevalent in communities where there is high unemployment. A man in Drewsland gets his blood lead level checked during a community outreach event organised by ICENS and sponsored by the CHASE Foundation. For the last 10 years the Jamaican government has been involved in funding and encouraging research on lead, through its agencies-the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica, the CHASE Foundation and ICENS. State health inspectors helped locate backyard lead smelters and were instrumental in educating communities about the dangers of lead. The Jamaican government has also taken steps to eliminate the threat of lead in the environment. Leaded gasoline was phased out in 1999. And children who are lead poisoned are treated free of cost at hospitals (the Spanish Town Hospital, the University Hospital of the West Indies and the Bustamante Hospital for Children). The state's most recent effort is the formation of a Heavy Metals Task Force, which is in its infancy. It's made up of a number of government agencies-the National Solid Waste Management Authority, the National Environment Protection Agency, the Ministry of Health Environmental Management Division, the regional and parish health authorities, as well as the University of the West Indies Physics Department, and ICENS. Despite these efforts, the havoc wreaked by lead pollution on vulnerable populations will persist unless poverty and alternate sources of employment are addressed.