The risk factors for lead exposure in developing countries have not been fully described. This study looks at child, maternal and household factors associated with increased risk of lead exposure at birth and at 13 years of age in the Birth to Twenty cohort.
Mothers were recruited from antenatal clinics in the Johannesburg-Soweto metropolitan area in 1990 (n=3273). Lead levels were analysed in cord blood collected at birth (n=618) and at 13 years (n=1546). Data on selected child, maternal and household factors were collected using a structured questionnaire in the third trimester and at 13 years of age. Statistical analyses were conducted to determine the associated risk factors.
The mean blood lead level at birth was 5.85 microg/dl, and at 13 years of age it was 5.66 microg/dl. The majority of children had blood lead levels above 5 microg/dl (52% at birth and 56% at 13 years). At birth, being a teenage mother and having low educational status were strong predictors for elevated cord blood lead levels. Being a male child, having an elevated cord blood level, and lack of household ownership of a phone were significant risk factors for high blood lead levels at 13 years.
Significant associations found in the study point to the low socio-economic status of lead-affected mothers and children. These poor circumstances frequently persist into later childhood, resulting in continued high lead levels. Thus broader measures of poverty alleviation and provision of better education may help decrease the risk of exposure.