Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is particularly detrimental to children's cognitive development. Batteries account for at least 80% of global lead use and unsafe battery recycling is a major contributor to childhood lead poisoning. Our objectives were to assess the intensity and nature of child lead exposure at abandoned, informal used lead acid battery (ULAB) recycling sites in Kathgora, Savar, Bangladesh, as well as to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of a soil remediation effort to reduce exposure. ULAB recycling operations were abandoned in 2016 due to complaints from residents, but the lead contamination remained in the soil after operations ceased. We measured soil and blood lead levels (BLLs) among 69 children living within 200 m of the ULAB recycling site once before, and twice after (7 and 14 months after), a multi-part remediation intervention involving soil capping, household cleaning, and awareness-raising activities. Due to attrition, the sample size of children decreased from 69 to 47 children at the 7-month post-intervention assessment and further to 25 children at 14 months. We conducted non-parametric tests to assess changes in soil lead levels and BLLs. We conducted baseline surveys, as well as semi-structured interviews and observations with residents throughout the study period to characterize exposure behaviors and the community perceptions. We conducted bivariate and multivariate regression analyses of exposure characteristics to determine the strongest predictors of baseline child BLLs. Prior to remediation, median soil lead concentrations were 1400 mg/kg, with a maximum of 119,000 mg/kg and dropped to a median of 55 mg/kg after remediation (p < 0.0001). Among the 47 children with both baseline and post-intervention time 1 measurements, BLLs dropped from a median of 21.3 μg/dL to 17.0 μg/dL at 7 months (p < 0.0001). Among the 25 children with all three measurements, BLLs dropped from a median of 22.6 μg/dL to 14.8 μg/dL after 14 months (p < 0.0001). At baseline, distance from a child's residence to the nearest abandoned ULAB site was the strongest predictor of BLLs and baseline BLLs were 31% higher for children living within 50 m from the sites compared to those living further away (n = 69, p = 0.028). Women and children spent time in the contaminated site daily and relied on it for their livelihoods and for recreation. Overall, this study highlights the intensity of lead exposure associated with the ULAB recycling industry. Additionally, we document the feasibility and effectiveness of a multi-part remediation intervention at a contaminated site embedded within a residential community; substantially reducing child BLLs and soil lead concentrations.
Keywords: Bangladesh; Battery; Blood lead level; Child lead exposure; Recycling; Remediation.
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