Alarming Lead Levels Measured in Georgian Children

A study released this week by UNICEF Georgia has once again raised the alarm on lead in the country. The headline: 41% of Georgian children have elevated blood lead levels. The study tested the blood of 1,578 randomly selected children two to seven-year-olds across Georgia. The results indicated that 41% of children have 5 micrograms or higher of lead per deciliter in their blood. Of these, 25% have 5 - 10 micrograms, and 16% of children had 10 micrograms or higher per deciliter. No level of lead exposure is safe for humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher are considered to be particularly worrying. UNICEF’s Maia Kurtsikidze told OC Media in October 2018 that the study would be broad enough to provide a representative picture of nationwide lead exposure.

The concern is especially acute for children, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead.

The WHO warns that “lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems,” distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones: lead is stored in the teeth and bones, accumulating over time, and is released into blood during pregnancy, exposing a developing fetus to the toxin. Children’s natural curiosity and tendency to put everything in their mouths often leads to them swallowing objects containing or coated in lead – soil, dust, and flakes of lead paint.

Children’s bodies absorb more lead if they are lacking other nutrients, calcium or iron, magnifying the impact on undernourished children, of particular concern in Georgia’s regions. Even low levels of lead exposure cause serious, irreversible, and cumulative damage. As little at 5 micrograms per deciliter can cause “a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems,” says the WHO, including affecting brain development, lowering IQs and inducing behavioral changes such as a “reduced attention span, increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment.” Lead exposure also causes anemia and high blood pressure, impairs kidney function, and can harm reproductive organs.

UNICEF Georgia conducted their study between September and December 2018. Per region, Ajara showed the highest lead levels, with 85% of children having 5 micrograms or more per deciliter of blood, followed by Guria (73%), Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti (71%), Imereti (61%), Samtshke-Javakheti (32%), Tbilisi (30%), Khaketi (25%), Shida Kartli (21%), Mtskheta-Mtianeti (20%), and Kvemo Kartli (18%).

The Georgian government responded quickly to the study, pledging to develop a plan to identify the main sources of lead exposure and to do more to block lead-containing products from the market, to manage contaminated sites, and to raise public awareness. Despite the shocking levels of lead exposure, and rising concern around the issue for the past several years, parents in Georgia still cannot rely on the government to regulate protection for their children.

Last month, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze convened a meeting of the Intersectoral Coordination Council, working on environmental issues under the 2018-2022 National Environment and Healthcare Action Plan, to discuss the monitoring of lead levels in children. Bakhtadze gave lip service to the issue, saying “I am aware of the numerous measures taken and international projects implemented in this direction. Naturally, we must focus on the recommendations of the World Health Organization and make use of the best practices accumulated in the countries of the West,” without proposing any specific action.

So, where is the lead coming from? The most common sources of lead exposure in humans worldwide are leaded gasoline, industrial sources, coal combustion, lead-based paint, lead pipes in water systems, batteries, and cosmetics. In 2000, Georgia outlawed the use of leaded gasoline in most of the transportation system, but the rules have been commonly ignored for most of the last 20 years. The majority of cars in the country are older models, many of which were designed for leaded gasoline. A 2006 UNECE study on transportation in the country warned that “lead concentrations [in gasoline] average substantially higher values” than legal maximums, and that “few of the fuel-testing laboratories are functioning, the lab equipment is insufficient, and the testing protocols are not being enforced.” A 2008 study by the NGO Cooperation for a Green Future echoed these concerns. Only this year are technical inspections becoming mandatory for private vehicles. While leaded fuel has become tightly regulated, checked at gas stations and at import points since the EU-Georgia Association Agreement came into force in July 2016, children born prior to that likely faced serious exposure to the toxin.

Construction is another possible source of lead exposure. Old construction with lead-containing materials demolished without proper mitigation precautions can send powdery lead dust into the air – a concern considering Georgia’s poorly regulated and hyper active construction sector. A 2017 Detroit Health Department study established that living within 400 feet (122 meters) of a demolition site increased the chances of children six and younger having elevated blood lead levels by 20% during warm weather months when children are more likely to be playing outside and windows are often left open. A 2018 study by Georgian NGO EcoVision found lead in easily inhalable airborne particulates (PM2.5 and PM10), noting a particularly high concentration of these particles near construction sites.

In 2017, there were reports of spices being contaminated with lead throughout Georgia. The New York City Department of Health advised residents to avoid spices imported from Georgia due to high lead levels. A study published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice in December 2018 warned New Yorkers that spices imported from Georgia were contaminated and unsafe to consume. Turmeric and kharcho suneli imported from Georgia had lead concentrations exceeding 50 ppm – compared to local versions closer to 2 ppm. “In NYC, children and pregnant women of Georgian and South Asian ancestry are disproportionately represented among the lead-exposed population,” warned the study.

Georgian law limits lead in food to 5 mg/kg. In tests conducted 2015-2017, the Georgian National Food Agency identified 7.06 mg/kg of lead in paprika, 6.38 mg/kg in dry ajika, and 5.60 mg/kg in khmeli suneli. The agency claimed the contaminated products all came from the town of Zugdidi. In February 2018, the government introduced a two-year ban on the production and sale of pre-ground spices by individual sellers, and mandated that spices be sealed and labeled. The same National Food Agency study found lead in many other common foodstuffs: meat, milk, bottled water, beets, coffee, fish, eggs, and salt. Despite the new law, in October 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia issued a warning to “exercise caution when purchasing spices manufactured locally” and to “consider purchasing spices only from recognized U.S. or international manufacturers” after finding that samples of khmeli suneli and yellow flower had lead contamination levels that significantly exceeded the WHO’s recommended limit. “Both were manufactured by GEO-Group and sold at Agrohub,” said the Embassy, noting that “Georgian spices are not subject to the same standards of food safety as those in the United States.”

Until decisive action is taken to identify and mitigate the sources of lead in the country, it seems there is little residents can do to avoid the pervasive poison.

By Samantha Guthrie

Image Source: UNICEF

25 April 2019 22:15