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An Old Problem for a New Century: International Approaches to the Elimination of Lead Poisoning

August 2002

Citation: 32 ELR 10956

Issue: 8

Author: K.W. James Rochow


Lead poisoning, as a mirror of the persistence of its stolid and elemental agent,1 has remained a serious threat to health and development for centuries, indeed millennia.2 The failure of modern societies to solve even this abundantly documented problem "with both causes and cures known" has given rise to repeated prophecies of social doom.3 The obverse opportunity presented by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) process4 is to establish a Global Lead Initiative (GLI) that will presently reduce and ultimately eliminate this long-standing worldwide threat. While the conquest of lead poisoning will constitute a signal victory in itself, its concrete achievement should also serve as an optimism-engendering model of international cooperation adaptable to solving other threats to sustainable development. In order to achieve this precedential victory, it is essential that the United States maintains and intensifies its leadership role on lead poisoning prevention in an internationalized context.5

The GLI should be designed to complete worldwide leaded gasoline phase-out6 on an expedited basis and to use the momentum from that success to address the multiple other sources of lead exposure. Modeled on proven processes such as the Summit of the Americas, the project should initially convene a technical advisory group to work in partnership with identified government focal points, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector, to prepare action plans for phase-out that include milestones and time lines for national action. The United States should support the GLI and such complementary activities as the development of an international network dedicated to raising public awareness and exchanging best practices for phase-out and prevention, including those based on U.S. experience.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article appears as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book is available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

James Rochow is Project Director for the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, where he directs the Alliance's project on global phase-out of leaded gasoline and provides input on legal issues, regulatory enforcement, and development of legal strategies. His international experience includes work as an environmental expert on the staff of the United Nations (U.N.) Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Tokyo and Bangkok, as a Japan Foundation Fellow, and as a University of Pittsburgh East Asian Studies Fellow.

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