A Lead-Free Future is Possible

USAID accelerates international response to address global lead crisis

USAID
U.S. Agency for International Development

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USAID Assistant Administrator for Global Health Dr. Atul Gawande speaks into a microphone while standing behind a podium adorned with the logo CGD. Behind him is an electronic display with the logos of CGD and USAID.
USAID Assistant Administrator for Global Health Dr. Atul Gawande to share his perspective on the scope and challenge of global lead poisoning as well as highlight USAID’s commitment to accelerating the international response. / USAID

Every year, lead exposure kills at least 1.6 million people around the world. And children, especially children in low- and middle-income countries, experience the most pronounced impacts of lead exposure.

Around the world, one in three kids has elevated levels of lead in their blood, leaving them at risk of developing cognitive impairments that last a lifetime.

To address this global crisis, USAID Missions around the world are taking up the charge to work with countries to enact regulations that phase out lead in consumer goods like paint, spices, and cosmetics.

“These actions alone have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, as well as prevent cognitive impairments and improve educational outcomes for hundreds of millions of children,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said at the start of 2024 when she also announced the Agency is joining the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint.

Last month, USAID Assistant Administrator for Global Health Dr. Atul Gawande continued the call for action at a panel of experts looking to accelerate this response at the Center for Global Development.

But before stepping into the future, let’s take a step back.

Where is all this lead coming from?

Lead poisoning has been around for centuries, as lead is found in nature. In modern times, however, lead increasingly shows up in consumer goods like paint, water pipes, and ceramics as well as through the recycling of car batteries that rely on lead. It’s also produced from current industrial activities as well as former lead-contaminated sites.

People become exposed to lead by inhaling lead particles, ingesting lead-contaminated dust, water, (through lead pipes) or food (like spices, contaminated cookware), and from hand-to-mouth behavior. No amount of lead is safe for human consumption or exposure.

A graphic with the statement: Globally, lead poisoning kills at least 1.6 million people each year — more than mortality caused by HIV and malaria combined, with the vast majority of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries.

How damaging is the problem?

Lead exposure is a silent threat with few symptoms to alert parents that their children might have been affected until it’s too late. Children are the population with the highest lead exposure rates, but pregnant people can also transmit the lead in their bodies to their developing fetuses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that lead poisoning leads to damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.

That brain damage, if severe, could also impair educational attainment and reduce future productivity. Lead exposure may account for one fifth of the educational gap between rich and poor countries, and creates at least a $1 trillion drag on the global economy.

But most importantly, lead poisoning is preventable.

A group of seven people sit in a line of matching chairs on a stage with an electronic buildboard behind them that repeats the logo of the organizer of the event, World Economic Forum.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power, second from right, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. She used the event in 2024 to called for more resources and action toward lead poisoning. / Isabella Blecha, USAID

Who are our partners working to eliminate the causes of lead poisoning?

In addition to the Global Alliance, which has worked to build agreements to control lead paint in almost 40 countries, USAID is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, the CDC, and the U.S. State Department to tackle this issue. While the greatest risks are in low- and middle-income countries, the United States is also spearheading efforts to remove lead pipes from U.S. communities.

At the Center for Global Development event, Dr. Gawande explained why USAID has joined the effort to eliminate lead.

“USAID is motivated by impact. Our job is to make sure we’re reducing premature mortality in the world and protecting Americans from health threats from abroad,” he explained. “Lead falls into both of those categories … . Flint [Michigan] was a major wake up call for the United States. The finding was that lead pipes in Flint were causing one in 20 children in Flint to have higher levels of lead in their blood that necessitated public health action. It led to a major commitment that President Biden announced this past fall that we would be removing all lead pipes in water service lines across the country.”

USAID is also responsible for coordinating implementation of the Global Child Thrive Act, which requires a focus on promoting early childhood development. Preventing exposure to lead and other toxins is critically important for children’s development.

He emphasized the scope of the challenge: “If one in 20 children in Flint were victims of lead toxicity, one in two children in low- and middle-income countries have elevated blood lead levels. Ninety percent of the problem is in low middle income countries.”

A graphic with the statement: A lead-free future has never been more achievable than it is today. With more funding, more advocacy and stronger political will, we can help save hundreds of thousands of lives.

What are USAID’s plans to tackle this issue?

Last month in Nigeria, USAID and country leaders announced they would collaborate to mitigate lead poisoning through a plan to increase surveillance, regulation, and enforcement of standards related to consumer goods.

Nigeria is a major hub of lead-acid battery recycling in sub-Saharan Africa, which, when done improperly, is a significant source of lead pollution. “USAID is committed to leading the Government of Nigeria’s mitigation efforts to save Nigerian children from further risk of lead exposure,” said USAID/Nigeria Mission Director Melissa A. Jones.

Additionally, USAID has long-standing requirements that all paint or construction products are lead free for all our activities.

USAID is supporting local governments in India and South Africa to develop strategies to combat lead exposure in their communities. And, in partnership with UNICEF, the Agency is conducting a nationwide survey of blood lead levels in children in Bangladesh that will help the government determine the pervasiveness of lead in children and create a plan to monitor and address the situation.

About the Authors

Angela Rucker is a writer at USAID. Eseroghene Oruma, a Communications Specialist II in the USAID Bureau for Global Health, contributed to this story.

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USAID
U.S. Agency for International Development

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