Reason Nairobi kids likely to be born with reduced I.Q

Blood samples from both mothers and umbilical cords were collected and tested at the Government Chemist in Nairobi.

Mothers at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, whose blood was tested at the Government Chemist, had high levels of lead in their own blood and subsequently in the umbilical blood
Image: The-Star

Research conducted by teams from Kenya and the US reveals that thousands of children born in Nairobi have been exposed to a chemical that can lead to lifelong reduced intelligence.

Mothers at Pumwani Maternity Hospital underwent blood tests conducted by the Government Chemist, indicating high levels of lead metal in both maternal and umbilical blood samples.

"When pregnant women are exposed to lead, it easily crosses the placenta to the fetus," explained the researchers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the developing fetus is particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, which can occur through the transfer of lead from the mother's bloodstream.

Lead can also be transmitted through breast milk, further exposing infants to its harmful effects.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Nairobi and the University of Washington, focused on mothers from Dandora and Kariobangi estates, known for heavy lead contamination due to factors such as proximity to dumpsites and informal lead acid battery recycling.

Blood samples from both mothers and umbilical cords were collected and tested at the Government Chemist in Nairobi.

"Twenty-three per cent and 100 per cent respectively, of the [umbilical] cord and maternal blood lead levels exceeded the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s blood lead reference value," the authors reported.

The research team stressed the dangers of lead exposure, especially for newborns, as it can result in lifelong mental retardation and poor cognitive abilities, particularly in mathematics.

The findings, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, underscore the urgent need for action to address lead poisoning in Nairobi's informal settlements.

Despite Kenya's ban on lead-based paints in 2018, the researchers identified house paints as a significant source of lead exposure. Rogue paint manufacturers continue to use lead additives illegally, posing a significant risk to public health.

Lead enters the body primarily through inhalation and ingestion of lead-containing dust, affecting vital organs such as the brain, liver, and kidneys.

The study linked the slow phase-out of lead-based paints in Kenya to ongoing lead exposure, particularly in informal settlements with poor housing conditions.

To address this public health concern, the researchers recommended improving screening and surveillance for illegal lead-based paints and educating the public about the dangers of lead exposure.

They also urged the implementation of established strategies to reduce lead exposure, including stringent standards for paints and related products set by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS).

These standards aim to limit the permissible total lead concentration in paint, aligning with international recommendations to protect public health.