Economic Costs of Childhood Lead Exposure in Low- & Middle-Income Countries
Sub Region : Eastern Africa
The map above reflects the results of research by NYU Langone’s Division of Environmental Pediatrics in which we estimated the economic costs linked to childhood lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries. This research is unique in that it represents the first attempt at estimating economic impacts of lead exposure in these demographics. (You can also read about our lead exposure research in Spanish.)
Exposure to lead has a permanent negative impact on children’s developing brains. One impact is a reduction in IQ, which can be correlated with decreases in lifetime earning potential. Lead exposure has already had an impact on the lives of many children around the world. Unless measures to prevent exposure become a priority, many more children will continue to be affected. In creating this map, we intend to raise awareness of the economic impact of lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries, and highlight the need for action.
Estimates of the economic costs of preventable lead exposure in children have been useful for decision makers in certain parts of the world. Until now, however, estimates have not been available for low- and middle-income countries. Without clear estimates of the costs of childhood lead exposure, it can be easy to underestimate the importance of this public health issue and the magnitude of the impact of any public policy aimed at reducing lead exposure.
About Our Research
Our research analysis focused on the neurodevelopmental impacts of lead, assessed as decrements (or reductions) in IQ points, and how this translates into decreases in lifetime earning potential, assessed as lost lifetime economic productivity in each country examined. By estimating the decrease in earnings potential in children affected by lead, we can fully appreciate the potential economic benefits of preventing children’s exposure to lead in low- and middle-income countries.
Our research findings indicate that lead exposure is still a major contributor to children’s intellectual disability in low- and middle-income countries. This burden translates into an annual cost of $977 billion (with a range of $728.6–$1162.5 billion), as calculated in international dollars.
This economic loss equals the following:
- $134.7 billion in Africa (4.03 percent of the gross domestic product, or GDP, in that region)
- $142.3 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean (2.04 percent of GDP)
- $699.9 billion in Asia (1.88 percent of GDP)
Overall, the burden associated with childhood lead exposure in these countries amounts to 1.20 percent of world GDP in 2011.
For comparison, the economic impact of lead exposure in developed regions such as the United States and Europe is $50.9 and $55 billion, respectively. When considering official development assistance to developing countries, the economic impacts of lead exposure are comparable with, and in some cases greater than, the net assistance received.
For more information about our study, read our full research paper, which includes supplemental materials including data sorted by country, and see our data table titled “Economic costs of childhood lead exposure in sub-Saharan African countries compared to official development assistance received.”
Preventing Children’s Exposure to Lead
The removal of lead from gasoline is one of the most important accomplishments for children’s health in the 20th century, with economic benefits that have been estimated at $2.45 trillion each year (Tsai and Hatfield, 2011). In the industrialized world, lead exposure was further reduced once lead was removed from other sources, such as paint.
However, in low- and middle-income countries, lead exposure remains a problem for children, especially from paint. One of the most important things we can do to decrease children’s exposure to lead is to ensure lead is no longer used in household paint and other paints to which children may be exposed (such as paints on playground equipment). The United Nations offers resources to help countries phase out lead paint through its Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint program.
How the Cost Impacts Were Calculated
Estimating and aggregating lost future earnings or lifetime economic productivity quantifies the potential economic benefits of preventing childhood lead exposure. Although this analysis has been done for developed countries, it had not been done in low- and middle-income countries, as data on blood lead levels are limited in these countries.
To overcome this limitation, we developed a regression model that allowed us to predict mean blood lead levels in children in those countries for which blood lead level data are not available. This is a significant advantage over the methods used in other economic analyses because we were able to estimate blood lead levels in regions of the world, such as central Africa or central Asia, for which recent or complete data were not available. From this, we estimated IQ loss for each country over a range of blood lead levels; the percent of lost lifetime economic productivity per IQ point; and the total lost lifetime economic productivity in the countries included in our analysis.
Bartlett ES and Trasande L. Economic impacts of environmentally attributable childhood health outcomes in the European Union. Eur J Public Health. 2014. DOI.
Trasande L and Liu Y. Reducing the staggering costs of environmental disease in children, estimated at $76.6 billion in 2008. Health Aff. 2011. DOI.
Tsai P and Hatfield T. Global benefits from the phaseout of leaded fuel. J Environ Health. 2011. 74(5):8–14.