Lead in the Balance

Dear Readers:

Three weeks ago I suggested 5 ways in which parents can encourage students who were not performing well academically. However, for the sake of completion, there are several environmental factors that can frustrate the best parental encouragement. One major environmental factor that is known to impair learning is lead, and the likely sources are leaded paint, automobile emissions, and water.

Lead poisoning is easy to misdiagnose since its symptoms are similar to those of other ailments. In young children, they include hyperactivity and headaches. In older children they include irritability, poor muscle coordination, high blood pressure, poor memory and poor concentration. If children are not treated early, it can retard mental and physical development, reduce attention spans, and lead to irreversible brain damage. Testing of blood for lead is available in Barbados, however such tests are reportedly very rarely requested.

Leaded Gasoline
In 1999, the government, in a highly responsible initiative, banned leaded gasoline, thus significantly reducing the risk of direct exposure to lead by students who walked to school along heavily trafficked roadways. However residential and school properties that bounded these roadways could have previously accumulated significant residues of lead. If this lead was not properly removed, then it could negatively affect the health of the residents.

It would be useful for the government to investigate whether a correlation exists between children whose homes lie within 15 metres of a busy roadway, and their academic achievement and complaints of illnesses. It would also be useful for the government to test dust samples around such properties for lead.

Should the investigation reveal a correlation, and should significant lead residues be found, then those currently living, working, and studying in such vulnerable areas should be tested, and if required, treated for lead poisoning. They should also be examined for the harmful effects of other automobile emissions, especially those that cause and aggravate asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.

Leaded Paint
Most paint used in Barbados after the mid 1970’s probably only contained trace amounts of lead. However before that time, the paint could have been heavily leaded. Exposure to lead from lead based paint mainly occurs when the paint deteriorates or is removed improperly, and the dust particles are ingested or inhaled.

The government’s Edutech program, which includes rehabilitating old schools, is a highly responsible initiative. However removing heavily leaded paint is a very dangerous construction activity that can place those near the paint removal activity, their families, and the students and teachers who will subsequently use the school, at severe risk of exposure to lead.

Removing lead based paint should not simply be left up to the Contractor. The Contractor should be made to follow the removal and disposal directives of the Environmental Engineering Department, or internationally accepted protocols in this regard.

Leaded Water Pipes
Prior to around the mid 1980’s, lead pipes were installed to be convey water to houses and schools in Barbados. In a highly responsible initiative, the Barbados Water Authority has discontinued the use of lead water pipes in Barbados, and if lead pipes are discovered during pipe repair activities, they are replaced with pipes of another material. However, in residential, commercial, and public buildings, including schools, lead solders are used to join hot water copper pipes, and brass faucets that leach lead are generally being used.

Barbados’ water has a high mineral content, which results in a build-up of a protective layer within the pipe. However, the build-up process can take approximately 5 years to completely cover the lead areas. Therefore houses, schools, or plumbing that are less than 5 years old are potential sources of lead poisoning. To reduce the risk of lead poisoning, water that is to be ingested should be drawn from the cold-water tap, and the initial 30-second morning draw should not be ingested but collected for other uses.

For the sake of our children’s future, the use of all lead based: paint, pipes, brass faucets, plumbing fittings and solders should be immediately restricted in Barbados.

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