800 Million Children Exposed to Poisonous Lead Levels

baby chewing on toy

One third of the world’s children have lead levels exceeding 5 micrograms per decilitre - a cautionary, toxic threshold monitored by WHO and the CDC, which requires immediate intervention by reinforcing regulations and remediating failing infrastructure systems in impoverished economies.

A new research study led by UNICEF and Pure Earth in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations agencies, as well as many universities and non-profit organizations, confirms that 800 million children have unacceptable lead levels in their blood.

The study states, “The unequivocal conclusion of this research is that children around the world are being poisoned by lead on a massive and previously unrecognized scale.”

The majority of children with dangerously high lead levels reside in impoverished and middle income countries where industrial pollution safeguards are inadequately enforced.

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recyclable car battery

“A major contributor to lead poisoning is a surge in the recycling of lead automotive batteries to satisfy the soaring growth in the numbers of cars and trucks, particularly in the developing world,” the study states.

Even though Lithium-ion batteries are technologically advanced, lithium is more complex, expensive and cannot be moved via airfreight.  The lower manufacturing and production costs for domestically-sourced acid batteries “…will dominate even more in countries that are doing rapid deployment in India, part of Africa, Western China, Vietnam, etc.,” said Battery Council International in a Forbes article published in October 2019 entitled, ‘The Lead-Acid Battery’s Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated’.

Research estimates that 50% of lead acid batteries are haphazardly recycled causing toxic spills.

Parents experiencing occupational exposure have lead dust on their clothing and shoes and then they make their way home.  Children with hand-to-mouth frequency ingest lead dust on a continual basis.

“With few early symptoms, lead silently wreaks havoc on children’s health and development, with possibly fatal consequences,” says Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF in ‘The Toxic Truth: Children’s exposure to lead pollution undermines a generation of potential’ report.

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“Exposure to lead-contaminated soil and dust resulting from battery recycling and mining has caused mass lead poisoning and multiple deaths in young children from Nigeria, Senegal and other countries,” says WHO.

“Children living at or near lead acid battery recycling workshops in India have been found to have lead levels as high as 190 micrograms per decilitre,” states Dr. Abbas Mahdi, head of the department of biochemistry at King George’s Medical University in Uttar Pradesh.

“Our children are also exposed to other contaminants like some spices and herbal medicines that have lead as a preservative and colour enhancer,” says Mahdi.

Good News

“The good news is that lead can be recycled safely without exposing workers, their children, and surrounding neighbourhoods,” said Richard Fuller, President of Pure Earth. 

“Lead-contaminated sites can be remediated and restored.  People can be educated about the dangers of lead and empowered to protect themselves and their children.  The return on the investment is enormous: improved health, increased productivity, higher IQs, less violence, and brighter futures for millions of children across the planet,” Fuller added.

car battery

Monitoring and reporting systems, prevention and control methods, public awareness, legislation and policy changes, and a concentrated effort on the inspection of imported goods – are all remedial measures to decrease lead exposure.

How much of your child’s environment is ‘Made in China’?

The majority of children’s toys, games, and costume jewellery including necklaces, bracelets, earrings, charms, rings, tiaras and hair clips are imported from China.  The United States Product Safety Agency stated that over 12% of children’s accessories contain high levels of toxic lead and/or cadmium.

girl's play jewellery

A few years ago, The Department of Toxic Substances Control in California cracked down on 16 businesses accused of selling and distributing inexpensive costume jewellery that contains dangerous lead levels – some more than 1,000 times the legal state limit. 

A child’s skin is three-to-five times thinner than adult’s skin and therefore, absorption levels of neurotoxins are much higher. 

The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta, Georgia states: “Dust and soil that contain lead may get on your skin, but only a small portion of the lead will pass through your skin and enter your blood if it is not washed off."  

Lead and lead-based compounds can leach into scrapes, scratches and wounds on the skin as well as direct contact through the mouth, nose and eyes.

The Canadian Paediatric Society published an article in 2019 entitled, ‘Lead toxicity with a new focus: Addressing low-level lead exposure in Canadian children’ which states: 

“Lead exposure can start prenatally, from exogenous lead exposures during pregnancy as well as from a mother’s endogenous stores.  Following birth, exposure can occur via ingestion, inhalation and/or dermal absorption.  Preschool children can absorb approximately 40% of the lead they happen to ingest, while adults absorb only about 10%.  Approximately 70% of the body’s stored lead is in bones and can be re-released into the bloodstream during remodelling of bones during childhood, adolescence or old age, or in response to stress, pregnancy or malnutrition”

smelting factory

Contaminated soil, lead paints, pigments and compounds, lead water pipes, electronic waste yards, traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicines, cosmetics (kohl), stained glass, crystal glassware, ammunition and ceramic glazes are some sources of lead. 

Metal toxicity through airborne vapours and metal particulates are generated at industrial smelters, foundries, steel mills, refineries, and mining and recycling operations.

“In August of 2009, 2,000 children living near zinc and manganese smelters were found to be poisoned with lead, an incident, which resulted in riots,” stated the National Center for Biotechnology Information, referring to the occurrence in the Shaanxi province of China.

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“Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the earth’s crust.  Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world,” says WHO.

Even at reduced levels, lead exposure is linked to lower IQs, attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities, increased anti-social behaviour and potentially violent and criminal behaviour.  High levels of lead exposure can cause anaemia, kidney and brain damage, central nervous system disorders, coma, convulsions – and death.

Common Symptoms of Lead Exposure

Symptoms listed below can be easily overlooked because they increase incrementally over time.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Hearing deficits
  • Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
Neurological syndromes and disorders


  • 85% of all lead used globally is for the production of lead acid batteries, of which the majority is sourced from recycled car and truck batteries.
  • Undernourished children will absorb more lead when they are deficient in nutrients such as calcium or iron.
  • Nearly one million adults die prematurely from lead exposure every year.
  • 65% of all forklifts in the world are powered by lead acid batteries.
  • Pregnant women in the Congo eat fired clay that is laden with lead, to decrease bouts of nausea.
  • WHO has identified lead as one of 10 chemicals of major public health concern.

United States – Stats

1.2 million children in the United States have escalated lead poisoning of which only 50% are receiving healthcare.  This number has increased over 300% since 2012 when an estimated 365,000 children were at risk for lead poisoning according to the CDC.  

31 states reported that the percentage of children diagnosed with high lead levels require medical help and/or an environmental enquiry.

Canada – Stats

According to Health Canada, very few documented cases of lead poisoning required intervention.  In 2017 (latest statistics), children and youth had lower lead levels than adults.

In 2019, the Canadian Paediatric Society stated, “Health Canada has identified potential exposures occurring prenatally, in infancy and during early childhood from food and water, household dust, soil and mouthing products that contain lead.  Children with neurodevelopmental problems who live in older housing and newcomers to Canada may be at greater risk.”

“Lead may accumulate in food grown in soil on previous industrial sites or next to old buildings or busy roads, but can also be present in water or air, or introduced in other ways during growth, transportation, preparation and storage.”

Majority of Children’s Play Jewellery & Accessories are made with Lead and Cadmium

A report published by Health Canada in May 2020 entitled ‘Industry Guide to Children’s Jewellery’ states, “Lead and cadmium are toxic metals that may be found in children's jewellery.  Although there are no known risks to health from jewellery containing lead or cadmium touching the skin, there are serious, potentially fatal risks from ingesting lead or cadmium.”

Lead has a sweet taste, which encourages children to chew or suck on lead laden products while cadmium tastes very bitter and could present as a deterrent.

baby sitting in car seat with toy
baby chewing on toy

“Ingested cadmium has been associated with harmful effects on the kidneys, liver and blood, and on the cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive/ developmental and immune systems,” the report states.

“After the introduction of lead limits for children’s jewellery, Health Canada found high levels of cadmium in various items of children’s jewellery in the Canadian marketplace, suggesting that cadmium was being substituted for lead in certain low-cost children’s jewellery.  Cadmium in children’s jewellery has been detected at levels up to 93%,” says Health Canada.

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Safety requirements for children’s jewellery that are manufactured, imported, advertised or sold in Canada apply under the ‘Canada Consumer Product Safety’ Act and under the ‘Children’s Jewellery Regulations’.  To protect children from toxicity associated with lead and cadmium exposure, the Children’s Jewellery Regulations set a limit of no more than 90 mg/kg of lead.

Ask yourself two questions…

When you see your child wearing costume jewellery or your infant chewing on a colourful toy, ask yourself two questions.  Where was this product made?  What resource materials were used to make this product?  I encourage you to examine your children’s environment and take proactive measures in ensuring their health, safety and well-being.

According to the CDC, United States has one of the highest rates in the world for autism spectrum disorder - 1 in 54 children.

Anti-vaxxers are unrelenting in approach, censuring vaccinations as the cause for neurological syndromes and disorders, when they should take a serious look at lead and cadmium exposure as the potential cause.

teddy bear with a sore on his head

The global market value for costume jewellery in 2020 is $28.3 billion US.

Based on growth factor and industry trends, the revenue forecast for 2025 is $39.2 billion US.

China is the world’s largest toy manufacturer exporter, accounting for almost 70% of the world’s toy supply.


For additional information, Diligencia Investigative Reporting recommends the following articles:

Pure Earth – The Global Lead Program

UNICEF - A third of the world’s children poisoned by lead, new groundbreaking analysis says

World Health Organization – Lead Poisoning and Health

United Nations agencies - Revealed: A third of world’s children poisoned by lead, UNICEF analysis finds

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - Toxic Environments in Chinese Countryside Creating ‘Cancer Villages’

Diligencia Investigative Reporting - Lead Level Limits for Children:  Results of Canada’s Survey and Policy

CDC Lowers Lead Level Limits in Children – includes Safety Measures for Parents and Baby Foods - Diligencia Investigative Reporting

Government of Canada – Lead and Cadmium in Children’s Jewellery

Government of Canada – Industry Guide to Children’s Jewellery

Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: Lead Toxicity

CDC – Childhood Lead Poisoning – Data and Statistics

Canadian Paediatric Society:  Lead toxicity with a new focus: Addressing low-level lead exposure in Canadian children

World Health Organization – Recycling Used Lead-Acid Batteries

New York State: Department of Health – Cadmium in Children’s Jewelry

Forbes – The Lead-Acid Battery’s Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

National Centre for Biotechnology Information – NCBI - Lead Toxicity: A Review (comprehensive report)


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