Paints used on the surfaces of Jakarta's children playgrounds often have a lead concentration way above international safety standards. (Antara Photo/Rekotomo)

Heavy Metal Children: Lead Exposure a Real Danger in Jakarta's Playgrounds


NOVEMBER 11, 2019

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan recently announced a plan to ban the use of lead-based paints on children's playgrounds in Jakarta.

The governor had read a report that found at least 69 percent of the equipment in 32 playgrounds in the capital's five regions had a lead concentration exceeding 90 parts per million (ppm), the internationally accepted standard.

The report came from BaliFokus/Nexus3 Foundation, a non-governmental organization focusing on health and the environment affiliated with the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN).

Out of the 32 playgrounds, 20 are Integrated Public Spaces for Children (RPTRA) managed by the Jakarta government. The rest are located within malls and apartment complexes.  

RPTRA is an initiative introduced in 2015 by the Jakarta provincial government to provide small urban green spaces for the public in densely populated areas.

RPTRA spaces are designed not just as playgrounds for children, but also to provide a space for the community to de-stress from harsh living conditions in the capital.

For the children, the spaces are meant to help them grow and develop by allowing them to play, learn, exercise and rest, all very important for the development of their cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills.

But the high levels of lead found in the playgrounds – with lead exposure of up to 4,000 ppm, way above the safety standard of 90 ppm of lead added in paints according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) – may now actually endanger those children the government is trying to help. 

Lead exposure is a major public health concern around the world. Lead is a toxic metal categorized as a cumulative toxicant, meaning that it is stored in the body over time and the accumulation of it will affect various organs.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead's neurotoxic effects since they absorb 4–5 times as much of ingested lead as adults from a given source.

There is no safe level of lead concentration in the blood; even a blood lead concentration as low as 5 µg/dL is associated with decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties and learning problems in children.

When children put their hands into their mouths in the playgrounds, they are likely to swallow lead-containing or lead-coated objects in the form of dust and flakes from decaying lead-containing paint. This can have serious and long-term health consequences for the children. 

Long-term outcomes of lead exposure in children may include low intelligence quotient (IQ), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning problems and aggressive behaviors.

These findings were a big blow for Jakarta's reputation, since the city had just received a Child-Friendly City award from international NGO Save the Children just a couple weeks before the report was published. 

How to Fight Lead Exposure

Two strategies can be taken up to mitigate the risks of lead exposure in children in Jakarta. The first is to conduct lead abatement on the premises.

The Governor's Team for Development Acceleration (TGUPP) has met with the Nexus3 research team to discuss the problem and decided to do further risk assessments on all 308 RTPRA in Jakarta. This means there are still 288 playgrounds to investigate.

The decision on whether or not to conduct lead abatement in the playgrounds will depend on the results of this investigation. It will be beneficial in the long run to get rid of lead-based paints completely, however, this will take time and there should be a simultaneous community-based intervention while waiting for the investigation results and the abatement process to begin – if it happens at all. 

The second strategy is to screen communities around the playgrounds for elevated lead concentration in their blood, and especially for children with elevated blood lead levels (BLLs).

This will determine the next step to manage these children – and adults – with elevated BLLs.  

While waiting for the complete results of the investigation, the government should also introduce simple preventive measures such as washing your hands after playing in the playground to reduce hand-to-mouth transfer of lead particles.

Playground managers should also conduct regular maintenance and cleaning to minimize risks of lead exposure from lead-painted surfaces.

Pregnant women are also at risk from lead exposure as lead particles can pass to the unborn baby and cause adverse outcomes such as spontaneous abortion, low birth weight and impaired brain development.

Ultimately, government regulations will be needed to protect the most vulnerable of the city's population from lead exposure.

Denita Utami is completing her master's degree in public health at Columbia University in New York.