A year-long analysis of blood samples by a diagnostic laboratory in Mumbai has revealed that 172 of 733 cases tested positive for lead poisoning.
The test results cannot be extrapolated to the general population as the blood samples were derived from people who were advised to do diagnostic tests for medical reasons.
However, the possibility of lead toxicity exists across all age groups. Recently, a popular brand of ready-to-cook noodles has been withdrawn after its samples contained lead. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified lead among the top ten environmental chemicals of “major public health concern.”
According to the WHO study, which was updated in 2014, lead exposure causes 1,43,000 deaths per year globally with the highest number of victims in developing regions.
Young children are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead because they can be exposed to it when crawling on the ground and by touching objects. Lead toxicity can lead to serious and sometimes permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead exposure is estimated to contribute to 6,00,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year. In growing children, lead poisoning causes low IQ, hyperactivity, attention deficit, autism, learning disabilities and anaemia.
“The cases that we tested were all suspected cases of lead poisoning, so to say that the number of positive cases is high would be alarming,” said Dr Sandeep Warghade, consulting pathologist at Metropolis Labs that did the tests.
Lead is a naturally occurring chemical and can enter the body through multiple ways. Doctors said that even food products cultivated in places which have high lead content in the soil can be a source of lead.
Apart from soil, other major sources of the chemical include drinking water (from leaching of water pipes), petrol emissions, household dust, battery recycling, silver refining, paints, pigments, printing presses, ceramic pottery glazes, cosmetics, colours (including kumkum, sindoor, spices and Holi colours), children’s toys (crayons and painted pencils etc.).
According to doctors, lead is more of an environmental toxin. “Acute lead poisoning is very unusual. However, those who work in an industrial setting where lead is used majorly may ingest it and small children are vulnerable. That said, lead is more of an environmental toxin than an individual clinical concern. Almost all of us at some point will have certain amount of lead in our system,” said Dr Roop Gursahani, neurologist at Hinduja Hospital, Mahim.