The tragic end of a family, save one member, in Polgasowita shocked us beyond measure recently. A father doused his children and wife with petrol and set them on fire and took his life in the same way. Such fathers are, no doubt, an exception and we are not short of caring dads even ready to lay down their lives for their children. But, even the good parents whose reason d` tre is the wellbeing of their broods unwittingly expose their precious ones as well as themselves to an insidious killer.
Yesterday, we reported the findings of a scientific study on lead levels in regular paints. Most of them contain an extremely high lead concentration far in excess of the tolerance level. Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage has revealed, at a forum in Colombo recently, the danger Sri Lankan children are exposed to because of high lead levels in paints. According to him, in fifteen samples of paints examined by experts, lead levels were extremely high one sample contained a lead level which was 1,526 and 228 times greater than the permitted limits in the US and Sri Lanka respectively!
Lead adversely affects the brain development in children besides the health of everybody. Deputy Director of the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety Dr. Champika Amarasinghe has said the damage lead causes to the nervous system is irreversible.
The danger of lead poisoning is only too well known. It is also believed to have contributed to the fall of the mighty Roman Empire to some extent. Wine made in lead lined vessels and the lead water pipes led to Romans consuming a great deal of lead daily. Gout, therefore, became common among wealthy Romans including the ruling and military elite. Towards its end, the Roman Empire came to be characterised by a chronic lack of mental health due to lead poisoning or Saturnine Gout. Galen of Pergamum famously said, `Gout is the daughter of Bacchus and Venus.` Emperors like Caligula and Nero known for their bizarre behaviour were said to be afflicted with gout.
We have no empire to mind but if the health authorities continue their slumber and allow all sorts of goods, including children`s food replete with carcinogenic MSG etc injurious to public health, to be dumped here, our population will be too sick to rule this little country in a few decades. (Is it that we are already being ruled by such a bunch with gout?)
It is surprising that the government which took steps, albeit with a protracted delay, to relive our children of the unnecessary burden of their extra large school bags which had turned them into little natamis (porters) has turned a Nelsonian eye to a far worse threat to their health. Some years ago, unleaded petrol was introduced and vehicle emission tests were made mandatory in this country. They were steps in the right direction in protecting the public. A similar effort is called for to battle lead contamination. One of our readers yesterday suggested that the government step in urgently to ensure that lead levels are prominently mentioned on labels of cans of paint so that the unsuspecting customers, who usually go by advertising, prices, discounts etc in making purchases, could make an informed decision without risking their health. This suggestion should be heeded.
As CEJ director has rightly said, `Lead is a poison and it should not be in paint or any other product to which children are exposed.` Let this remark ring in the ears of health authorities and those responsible for consumer safety.
The government introduced the Mathata Thitha programme to battle drug addiction and dipsomania. It should give serious thought to launching similar project to prevent the country from being used as a dumping ground for goods contaminated with toxins. It may call it Visata Thitha (`Full stop to Poison`).