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Authorities campaign for lead-, mercury-safe schools

By Catherine J. Teves

MANILA, June 24 (PNA) — Philippine Environment chief Ramon Paje and European Union Ambassador Guy Ledoux spearheaded on Tuesday in Metro Manila the campaign to promote schools that are safe from lead and mercury, two naturally occurring but toxic elements.

Both officials led stakeholders concerned in signing at eco-friendly Commonwealth Elementary School in Quezon City the solidarity statement manifesting their commitment to help develop bright and healthy schoolchildren by advocating the use of lead- and mercury-free school materials and items.

"A nation's true wealth can be realized only through a healthy and educated citizenry – we must ensure that the succeeding generations will be healthy, educated and aware of dangers posed by elements like lead and mercury," Paje said at the event.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and its partners kicked off the campaign as EU reported a study it funded in 2013 showed "worryingly high" lead concentration in over 60 percent of paint samplescollected nationwide.

Citing findings of its contractor, a certified Italy-based laboratory, EU noted average concentration of lead in the samples reached levels up to 200 times the maximum threshold authorized in other countries.

"The danger of lead exposure in the Philippines is real," Ledoux said during the launch.

He raised urgency for action, observing paints containing lead are widely available to the public nationwide.

To guard against lead, Paje issued last year DENR Administrative Order 2013-24 or the Chemical Control Order for lead and lead compounds.

He also represented the Philippines in the UN Conference on Mercury held last year in Japan and signed there the Minamata Convention which calls on member-states to regulate mercury.

"We're focusing on lead and mercury as these are commonly used but very toxic and we're highly exposed to both elements," he said.

DENR-Environmental Management Bureau Director Juan Miguel Cuna agreed, optimistic the campaign against lead and mercury will have long-term benefits.

"By acting on the matter, we can ensure schools will be hubs of non-toxic growth and transformation," he said at the event.

Experts said lead is an element found in the air, soil, water and even inside houses.

Such element and lead compounds have been used in various products like paint, ceramics, pipes and other plumbing materials, solders, gasoline batteries, ammunition and cosmetics.

Children can be more highly exposed to lead because they often put, into their mouths, objects that might contain this element.

They may be exposed to lead also by eating food and drinking water contaminated with lead, playing with toys coated with lead-laden paint as well as inhaling lead dust from tainted paint and soil.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned lead is particularly dangerous to children since their growing bodies absorb more of this element than adults do.

Children's brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead's damaging effects, EPA continued.

"Lead exposure in children affects brain development leading to lower IQ, mental retardation and kidney damage," Ledoux also said.

He noted such ailments jeopardize affected children's school performance and said lead exposure's impacts are non-reversible.

Among pregnant women, EPA said health problems from exposure to lead include reduced growth of fetuses and premature birth.

Adults exposed to lead can also suffer hypertension, increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

Like lead, experts said mercury is found in the air, water and soil.

Mercury is used in products like thermometers, switches, lamps and laboratory reagents – items which are commonly found in schools.

Eating mercury-contaminated fish and shellfish is a common way humans become exposed to such element.

EPA warned exposure to mercury can affect the human nervous system and harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system.

University of the Philippines-Manila's Special Assistant to the Chancellor Dr. Irma Makalinao called on government to ensure school items aren't contaminated with either lead or mercury.

"When we think of a toxic-free future, we must think holistically," she said at the event. "It's not just about having a clean environment. We must ensure forthcoming generations will have the future they rightfully deserve."

In a briefer distributed during the launch, environment watchdog EcoWaste Coalition reiterated its warning about lead and cited several ways to prevent poisoning due to this element.

"Avoid buying or giving kiddie products with lead," EcoWaste said.

The coalition also urged use of lead-free paint, washing of hands after playing and before eating as well as regular house cleaning to avoid increase of dust that might contain lead. (PNA)

SCS/CJT/UTB

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