Wednesday, January 17, 2024

World Economic Forum - Davos, Switzerland

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you, Lucy [Pérez] for that introduction, and really a special thanks to Prime Minister [Irakli] Garibashvili of Georgia, whose efforts to treat and prevent lead exposure have cut blood lead levels in the country’s hardest-hit regions by two-thirds in just five years. Really looking forward, Mr. Prime Minister, to hearing your account of how you achieved that measurable success. And Minister [Mudrick] Soragha from Tanzania, whose country was the first in East Africa to regulate lead paint, and with whom we are looking forward to working on the ground to expand the impacts of those regulatory efforts. 

First, just maybe a personal reflection on this panel. I have spent my career – first as a journalist, and as a human rights activist, and as a government official, and as a diplomat – looking for ways to promote and protect human rights, and to try, especially while at USAID, to improve and even if we can save lives around the world. I can say right here, that never in my career have I seen an opportunity like the one we are about to discuss – to deliver such a powerful blow to such an invisible killer for such a relatively small amount of funding. 

And I'm speaking, of course, we are speaking about lead poisoning. The world can make a really substantial dent in lead exposure for less than it costs to make the last movie you saw. 

Lead poisoning claims a staggering 1.6 million lives each year. That’s more than the deaths caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. 

One would expect that such a staggering human cost would garner major international attention and resources. Yet the total investment each year from international donors in taking on this crisis is just $15 million. That is million with an M, million.

If all we do coming out of today, and I really want to send a special welcome and thanks to all the people who are watching online, if all we do together is begin the final push for example to eliminate lead in consumer goods – if all we do is begin to harness the power of our networks and commit just a fraction of our annual budgets to this cause – we have the chance to prevent brain damage for hundreds of millions of children and every year, potentially, to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Perhaps no one can better understand the urgency of addressing the lead crisis than parents. For decades, lead has poisoned kids in their classrooms, their bedrooms, their playgrounds. Lead lurks in the food that kids eat, the water they drink, the medicines they take, and of course the paint brightening their bedroom walls, and the toys that are helping them learn and grow. Until very recently, lead laced the gasoline powering their family cars, and it spewed out of exhaust pipes into the air that they breathed.

Lead is particularly harmful to children, but there is no safe amount of lead for anyone. Imagine if a single sugar packet filled with lead dust was sprinkled across an American football field – so think of the scale of the football field and the tiny little packet of sugar, what comes out of that packet would be enough to poison a child playing there. 

And once in the body, lead can threaten almost every major organ – wreaking special havoc on the heart and the brain. Signs of exposure are often difficult to attribute; cognitive deficits might be ascribed to poor education, and even deaths are attributed to heart attacks or strokes, rather than the lead poisoning that caused them.

Yet for a problem so omnipresent, so invisible, so deadly, the key policy response is actually straightforward: eliminate lead at its source, before it reaches communities. 

That, of course, as we all know, is what happened before. In the 1970s, when government officials and activists tackled one of the largest sources of lead: gasoline. By the turn of the century, industrialized countries from Japan to the United States had implemented total bans on lead additives. Over the following two decades, a UN-led campaign helped achieve that same result throughout the rest of the world – it’s an incredible, insufficiently told success story. They spent just $6 million in ten years, and that period covered the phase-out of leaded gasoline in all of sub-Saharan Africa and every remaining holdout except for four countries.

Leaded gasoline was one of those rare public health threats – wide-ranging and deadly, yes, but also eminently solvable. And the impact has been tremendous. Every year, the ban on leaded gasoline saves roughly 1.2 million lives.

Higher-income countries like the U.S. went on to ban lead additives in other products like house paint and water pipes. Starting in 1978, blood lead levels throughout the U.S. dropped 60 percent within 10 years, and 95 percent within 25 years. Today, President Biden is making historic additional investments, this time, in the replacement of lead water lines, the removal of lead-based paint in older buildings, and the clean-up of lead deposits in soil.  

But in many low- and middle-income countries, there is still very little regulation of lead in products beyond gas, and often no enforcement, or too little enforcement, to ensure that regulations are being followed. 

Today, one in two children in these countries has elevated levels of lead in their blood. That is every other student in a classroom, every other child kicking a soccer ball on a field. 

Lead causes learning disabilities and educational performance gaps estimated to cost the global economy at least a trillion dollars every year.

Fortunately, and again looking ahead there is a lot of good news for us to seize upon, the successful phase-out of gasoline and other products has given us a straightforward, proven playbook to take on this crisis.

First, conduct regular blood and market testing, and ideally blood lead level testing, to identify exposures and trace exposure back to the source.

Second, pass binding controls to phase out lead in specific products and industries.

Third, where needed, support the private sector to transition to lead free and often – and this is key – cost-comparable alternatives. Those cost-comparable alternatives are out there and accessible, they just have to be seized upon.

And finally, enforce and ensure that regulations are being followed.

This playbook is broadly applicable, but it is especially efficient and affordable to implement one slice of this problem, and that is that which relates to consumer products – paint, spices, and cosmetics. So, we are also supporting the advocacy needed to pass and enforce new regulations to phase out lead in these products.

That is why I’m delighted, here today at the World Economic Forum, to announce that USAID is the world’s first bilateral donor agency to join the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. The Alliance has helped ban leaded paint in almost 40 countries – more than a third of all nations that have bans. Joining the Alliance can give our teams on the ground the support they need to assist our government partners in passing similar policies.

The process to phase out lead from consumer products is often incredibly cheap. In 2019, for example, Bangladeshi researchers discovered that turmeric was a primary cause of high blood lead levels. Government officials launched an aggressive media campaign to inform communities about the dangers of lead and followed up with impromptu testing of turmeric to identify which shops were selling leaded products. Within two years, just two years, the percent of turmeric samples containing lead dropped from 47 percent to zero. And the cost of the entire effort, from start to finish, was in the low millions.

Now, not all efforts to prevent the release of lead into the environment will be so cost effective.   Preventing lead pollution in industries like mining and manufacturing, replacing infrastructure like old lead pipes, and cleaning up contaminated soil and water, that’s of course require more resources. But that’s why it’s so important to give countries the tools and support they need to identify, what for them, are the biggest sources of lead exposure – so that they know where they need to concentrate resources to eliminate lead.

I’m pleased to announce here today that USAID is committing an initial $4 million toward identifying and addressing common sources of lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries, including blood testing and sampling initiatives. That money is going to fund pilot programs in India and South Africa focused on lead mitigation, while also supporting UNICEF as they work to expand blood testing nationwide to Bangladeshi children.

Today though, the reason we are here and doing this at the World Economic Forum, is to make an appeal, to donors of all kind – governmental donors, other international funders, diaspora doors, high net worth individuals – to join us. 

Join us in building up testing capacity, join us in helping countries identify the source of the problem, best apply their resources to take it on or reinforce those resources where we need to, and see that those efforts are making a measurable difference – finding ways to see the impact of specific interventions.

So many of the challenges we face, that are being discussed in other rooms, that are being discussed all around the world, that are searing our consciences as we are here today are entrenched, they are complicated, they are hard to solve. Lead is different. According to the Center for Global Development, we can eliminate lead from two critical consumer sources, paint and spices, for just $30 million. That is the cost of a private jet. To be clear, there are other consumer goods that we absolutely have to tackle together, but the cost there too will be comparable.

For a small price we can spare parents of living the nightmare of seeing their kids poisoned in the places where they’re supposed to be safe. We can help prevent cardiac deaths in men and women who are too young to die. And we can help kids under five safely learn and grow to their fullest potential – if we simply choose to.

Thank you so much.

Toward a Lead-Free Future


Administrator Power will join an issue briefing at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting where she will deliver remarks and participate in a panel discussion on the importance of lead mitigation.

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