Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Heavy metals in blood causing mental disabilities in Punjab’s children

A study on 120 autistic children by Baba Farid Centre for Special Children, Faridkot, shows presence of toxic heavy metals in their blood

New Delhi: Environmental pollution and excessive use of ground water has led to many adverse health impacts in Punjab, starting from cancer to Hepatitis C to high levels of uric acid among women. The latest to join the bandwagon is learning disabilities and mental retardation among children.

A study on 120 autistic children by Baba Farid Centre for Special Children, Faridkot, released last week and first reported by The Tribune showed the presence of toxic heavy metals in their blood. Urine samples of children were tested in a German laboratory called Micro Trace Minerals. Lead was found to be high in 93 children. In 10 children, it was found to be 15 times higher than the internationally accepted limit of 5 microgram/gm of urine. Lead is a carcinogen and affects the nervous system of the body.

“Lead interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing learning and behaviour disorders. It hinders growth and development, leading to low intelligence quotient, low memory, hyperactivity and seizures," said Dr Amar Singh Azad, paediatrician, formerly with Government Hospital and Medical College, Patiala.

Many other heavy metals were also found to be in high quantity compared to international standards. Nickel was found to be high in 98% children, arsenic in 83%, aluminium in 85%, mercury in 19% and barium in 93% of the children. Metal quantity was alarmingly high in some children. Nickel was 20 times higher in 11% of the children, while barium was 15 times higher in 10% of them.

Most of the heavy metals are toxic in nature and some like lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, barium, nickel and uranium are dangerously toxic. “They cause neurobehavioral and intellectual impairment, hearing loss, and anaemia, all of which lead to learning disabilities," said Azad.

Pritpal Singh, director, Baba Farid Centre for Special Children, said that mindless extraction of ground water is at the root of the problem. “As people are using more water than what is replenished every year, toxic metals from the ground are drawn toward water bodies used for drinking water. Thus, they enter people’s blood," said Singh.

In the past one decade, groundwater depletion has been rampant in Punjab. Out of 132 blocks, nearly 90 blocks were in the category of dangerous in 2004. It increased to more than 100 blocks by 2014.

However, utensils made of stainless steel and aluminium are also big culprits. “Extensive use of stainless steel, which is an alloy of nickel and steel, and aluminium utensils in our kitchens is also a dangerous phenomenon," said Azad.