MEMORY MANINGA, Lusaka
EXPOSURE to lead even at low levels has serious health effects, especially in children.
Lead is highly poisonous and affects anyone who comes into contact with the substance.
Lead poisoning occurs when one is constantly absorbing the chemical through breathing or swallowing contaminated substances.
Lead is used to add colour to things like paints, art pieces and toys. In the construction industry, lead is used to activate the drying process of roads and bridges.
Constant exposure to lead normally occurs through paints, toys and furniture.
However, globally lead-containing paint has been recognised as a major health threat because people continuously inhale the chemical from walls in their homes and offices.
Children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning because their brain system takes several years to develop whereas their immunity is weak. Toddlers are particularly at risk of lead poisoning because they are fond of putting objects such as toys, most of which contain the substance, in their mouths.
Mere exposure to lead in any form is harmful and irreversible. It affects child development and can also affect the health of adults and pollute the environment.
Experts say in adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and the nervous system.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report says lead poisoning excessively affects the stomach and kidneys, and over a long period, it can also cause hypertension.
WHO Zambia national professional officer, Freddie Masaninga said children are the most vulnerable to poisoning through lead, and they tend to suffer lasting health problems.
He explained that lead poisoning affects child growth and development, furthermore causing retardation, hearing impairment and loss of intelligence quotient.
Mr Masaninga said this at a stakeholders meeting held in Lusaka to chart the way forward on how best to eliminate lead-containing paints in Zambia.
At the meeting, teachers talked about lead induced intellectual disability of leaners.
Moses Chingaipe, a primary school teacher in Kafue shared that he has been struggling to get his grade five pupils to perform well in class.
Year in and year out, there are some below average pupils who aren’t showing signs of improvement.
“It is the desire of every teacher to have a class that is outstanding, but unfortunately, this does not entirely depend on the teacher alone.
“Sometimes we use all manner of strategies to teach our pupils, but some children cannot improve,” Mr Chingaipe says.
Unknown to him and other teachers, most schoolchildren have been exposed to lead-containing paints both at home and in school, and eventually developing intellectual disability.
In light of this, governments around the world, the private sector and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) decided to form a Global Alliance in 2009 to eliminate lead in paint as a way of combating exposure to the substance.
The alliance is coordinated by the WHO and the UN Environment.
Zambia is a party to this alliance that aims at eliminating lead in paint by 2020.
Mr Masaninga explained during the meeting that the Global Alliance is advocating for laws in all countries of the world that will stop the manufacturing and importation of lead paint.
“The target was supported by governments at the fourth International Conference on chemical management (ICCM4) held in 2015. Countries that are a party to this alliance are calling for legally binding controls on lead by the year 2020,” Mr Masaninga said.
WHO identifies lead as one of the 10 chemicals of major public health concern.
In a study, it states that globally, lead poisoning accounts for about 143,000 deaths and 600,000 cases of intellectual disability annually.
Since the alliance was formed in 2009, 67 countries have acquired legal controls on lead paint and 69 countries have not done so. There is however, no data for the remaining 58 countries in the world as they are not yet part of the alliance.
In Zambia, stakeholders are now calling on Government to expedite the process of imposing legally binding regulations towards the importation and manufacturing of lead paint in the country.
Children’s Environmental Health Foundation (CEHF) national lead elimination advisor, Michael Musenga says Zambia needs a law in place to stop the manufacturing and importation of lead paint.
“Government should expedite the process of drafting regulations that will see to it that importation and manufacturing of lead in the country is stopped.
“ZEMA (Zambia Environmental Management Authority) needs to strengthen its monitoring system to stop manufacturers from manufacturing paints containing lead. Paint manufacturing companies should also ensure that they display genuine information of what is contained in the paint they produce to avoid misleading people,” Mr Musenga said.
Professional Teachers Union of Zambia (PROTUZ) director worker education, Kabinda Mutale says it is sad that Zambia has not yet introduced laws to stop the production of lead paint.
He also expressed concern that the importation of lead paint in the country has still continued, thereby causing more health hazards.
Mr Mutale called on Government to prioritise the process of introducing regulations on lead paint to avoid further lead poisoning and its adverse effects on health.
“As earlier expressed by my fellow teachers, it is disheartening to teach a class that cannot produce the desired results. The development and economic growth of any country depends on the standard of education. And if children of today do not acquire the required education, then the country’s development can be in serious jeopardy,” Mr Mutale said.
Government shares the concerns of stakeholder on this matter and says eliminating exposure to lead contamination through paint is fundamental as it borders on the survival and development of children and the wellbeing of adults.
Minister of Water Development, Sanitation and Environment Protection, Lloyd Kaziya said Zambia prioritises the health of the general citizenry, thus will prioritise the need to minimise exposure to lead.
Mr Kaziya said lead-containing materials such as paints should be replaced with products that do not contain the chemical.
This, he said is the reason why Zambia has joined the rest of the world in the campaign to eliminate lead in paint.
“As Government, we recognise the urgent need to enact appropriate legislations to attain a healthy and productive Zambia. And we will ensure that we work towards that,” Mr Kaziya said.
But before such a law is put in place, probably the question by many is “how does one recognise lead-containing paint in a shop?
“Are the paints properly labelled in terms of ingredients to guide the shopper?”
Perhaps checking the product labels and carrying out research before shopping could help make our environment less lead contaminated.
But if manufacturers do not provide such information on the product labels, many will continue to suffer adverse effects of lead poisoning in Zambia until the law prohibits lead paints.