We are good news of new efforts to address a global health threat that will claim more than 900,000 lives this year. Since the symptoms are not always visible, the danger posed by this threat is insidious. While not fatal, it contributes to poverty, undermines human potential, and harms communities.
Yes, COVID-19 is one such threat, but it's not the only one. This also applies to lead pollution. The human use of lead is widespread. All over the world, people are exposed to lead in the water they drink, the air they breathe, the food, the soil they cultivate, and the soil they walk on.
Lead poisoning is neither contagious nor as rapid as coronavirus, but recent research shows its deadly effects. More than 800 million children – one in three worldwide – have levels of lead in their blood, which can impair their brain development and slow down their ability to learn.
Boys and girls under the age of five are most at risk. The consequences for them are both life-changing and lifelong, and can include a decline in intellectual development, behavioral changes, and an increased risk of heart and kidney damage. There are also economic ramifications as lead exposure in children causes an estimated loss of $ 1 trillion in economic potential.
A young boy washes pieces of metal that were collected from a rubbish dump on the banks of the Buriganga in Bangladesh in 2007. Shehzad Noorani – UNICEF / UNI9918
Then what is our good news?
Lead can be safe when recycled and used properly, and lead poisoning can be prevented. Particularly in middle- and higher-income countries, concerted action over the past few decades has done much to reduce the damage caused by gasoline and lead-based paint.
While paint and fuel are no longer a threat in most of the world, lead-acid batteries are the leading cause of lead pollution today. As the number of vehicles that require multiple lead-acid batteries over the last 20 years has increased in low- and middle-income countries, the risk of lead contamination has also increased.
It is estimated that half of these batteries end up in the informal recycling sector, where they are broken and melted, releasing lead particles into the environment. This is how they make their way to children: children play with lead; they breathe it in; her parents unwittingly bring it home on their clothes.
It is not too late to act. That is why today we are drawing your attention to a new partnership, the Initiative for the Protection of Every Child, which aims to address this issue urgently and comprehensively. It brings together Unicef, the United Nations' leading children's agency. Clarios Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the world's largest manufacturers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries; and Pure Earth, a global leader in toxic pollution removal. (Clarios is a customer of the Albright Stonebridge Group.)
The initiative aims to mobilize collective action to reduce lead exposure through awareness-raising, community action, technical assistance and cooperation between societies and sectors. Steps that will assist participants include improving education, testing and monitoring, eliminating unsafe lead recycling and smelting activities, and cleaning and remediating toxic sites.
The aim is to influence better global, regional and national law and policy, including the enforcement of environmental regulations for smelters. Public outreach of all kinds will play an important role, especially to ensure that local communities understand their own part in creating a safer and healthier environment for their young people.
In 2007 a young girl was looking for metal in a rubbish heap on the banks of the Buriganga River in Bangladesh. Shehzad Noorani – UNICEF / UNI9919
The initiative is based on a simple, not surprising fact. Global progress in health depends on joint efforts by the public and private sectors. We have seen this truth shown repeatedly when we battled polio, HIV / AIDS, malaria, guinea worm, and now COVID-19. It is only sensible to combine the resources and expertise of government, business and civil society. Together we can act quickly to identify and remedy the causes of the suffering.
While COVID-19 is the most dramatic public health problem in the world today, it should not affect our awareness and determination to address other threats. Lead poisoning affects children on a large scale and is tacitly harmful to their health and development, with potentially fatal consequences.
We know what to do to stop this insidious threat. Together, governments, corporations and philanthropy can and should make a difference. The initiative to protect every child can help point us all in the right direction, but it cannot be successful on its own. It will need and deserve the support and collaboration from all of us.
Madeleine Albright was US Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1993–97) and US Secretary of State (1997–2001) and is currently Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategic advisory firm.
Henrietta Fore is the managing director of Unicef.
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