The unfortunate policy that informs public health reasoning is that resources, whether financial or personnel, are prioritised for diseases that claim the most lives quickly, like Ebola, or those that may move from one person to another fast and threaten a whole community, like cholera.
This, in a way, is rational in an age when health sectors around the world face thin budgetary allocations. But the few deaths caused by other less provocative diseases or conditions are not any less tragic, and one of those conditions is lead poisoning.
With that in mind, it is understandable why the warmth in the picture of the boy in Phillys Omido’s arms on Facebook vanishes immediately one reads the caption below it.
“Baby Sammy was found to have very high levels of lead in his body and his vital internal organs had collapsed completely. This is very tragic,” writes the father, his words capturing concisely the tragedy that befell his son.
Samuel Omondi (5) lived in the slums of Uhuru Owino in Mombasa County, and he passed away on September 30 this year. Cause of death: lead poisoning.
And now a chemist at the University of Nairobi is warning that more Kenyans than earlier though could be facing the same fate as Baby Samuel Omondi.
THOSE AT THE HIGHEST RISK
Those at the highest risk are the millions working in the informal sector, which employs three out of four of Kenyans, and whom Dr Farida Were says face elevated exposure levels to the heavy metal.
Lead is used in paints, batteries and road markings in Kenya. It has been linked to neurological problems which are sometimes fatal, as in the case of Baby Samuel.
His death, however, could have been avoided had government agencies been more diligent. The tragic story starts in 2007, when the authorities allowed the setting up of a battery recycling factory, Metal Refinery EPZ Limited, in the Uhuru Owino settlement.
Waste from the firm, such as dust, fumes and solid waste, was discharged into the area, and while few cared to see the danger, that was the beginning of a chain of events that have haunted the residents here to date, three years after the factory was shut down in the middle of public uproar.
In March this year the Ministry of Health conducted an analysis of dust, air, soil and water around the area, and found that there was “elevated exposures warranting one form of intervention or another”. At most risk were children, pregnant women, and women of reproductive age.
The Lancet Group of Labs was involved in the study, and Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the chief executive, said exposure to even small amounts of lead has been found to damage the brain and intellectual capacities of children, thereby ruining their potential in school and entire lives.
Neurological studies have focused on the metal’s ability to substitute two crucial minerals for the body’s development, Calcium and Zinc — through a chemical process called displacement—and how the body absorbs the poisonous metal assuming it is one the two beneficial elements above.
In the process of displacing these minerals, lead binds itself into portions of the brain and blocks its development, leading to retardation.
The government is yet to “cleanse” Uhuru Owino, even though Phyllis, the environmental campaigner who brough Baby Samuel’s tragic story to the limelight, says this is most urgent. The county executive member for health in Mombasa had not responded to HealthyNation’s calls by the time we went to press.
HEALTHY BRUSH STROKES
Dr Farida Were’s observation that the informal sector faces a great risk of exposure is particularly worrisome. According to the Economic Survey 2016, the construction sector alone employs more than 320,000 people, and the number grows by six per cent every year.
Dr Were is an advisory group member of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint as well as the chairperson on the technical committee at the Kenya Bureau of Standards for the development of standards on paint and related products.
She said that Kenya, like many other developing nations, is yet to ban the use of lead in paints even though there are alternatives.
A 2014 study in collaboration with the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (Kirdi) found that almost all of the 15 of 30 local formal paint manufacturers that participated in the study were still using lead, especially in oil-based decorative and industrial paints.
Only two firms, Sadolin and Crown, had transitioned to unleaded paints for household use.