UN health agency calls for end to production and use of lead paint

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Lead poisoning has devastating health consequences in particular for children who may suffer irreversible brain damage, according to the United Nations health agency.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says 99 per cent of children affected by the high exposure to lead live in low and middle income countries where each year up to 600,000 of them suffer lifelong brain impairment as a result of exposure to lead.

Lead paint is a major source of potential poisoning for young children and it may be found in the home, on toys, furniture and on other objects.

Ahead of the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action to be observed from 20-26 October, WHO is calling on countries to strengthen national actions to eliminate lead paint.

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment, says there is no safe exposure to lead.

"What happens if you are exposed to high levels of lead. Lead will have a terrible impact on the brain and the central nervous system and then can cause coma, convulsions and even death. The horrible thing is that the children who will survive those dramatic exposures to lead will remain with intellectual impairment and behavioral disruption's forever. It is irreversible. What happens if you are exposed at the lower level of lead. This will cause no obvious symptoms, but we know now that it will provoke a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems and will affect the development in children resulting in reduced IQ and behavioral changes including shortening of attention span, increased anti-social behavior, so violence and will reduce educational attainment and more dramatic is that those effects are irreversible."

WHO estimates that 143 000 deaths per year result from lead poisoning.

Worldwide, 30 countries have already phased out the use of lead paint and the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by WHO and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), hopes to increase the number of countries to 70 by 2015.

Patrick Maigua, United Nations Radio, Geneva.

Duration 2.21″

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