Home truths

Most popular paints in India contain high quantities of lead, a toxin especially dangerous to children. The Centre for Science and Environment’s laboratory tests found very few paint brands are safe

Published: Monday 31 August 2009

Home truths

-- (Credit: Surya Sen) Modern houses are suffused with harmful chemicals. One of them is lead, present in paints. It is banned in several countries but not in India. The Centre for Science and Environment tested popular paints in India for lead content. It found 72 per cent of the samples had lead much higher than the voluntary limit specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Only the Dulux brand of ICI was lead-free; Asian Paints cleaned up later. What implications does it have for our health? Why is no one limiting harmful chemicals in household products?

George W Bush did not need to invade Iraq to find chemical weapons. He would have found them right inside his house. Not just his house but everybody else's. They do not come inside menacing iron shells, or use rocket propellants to launch themselves for an attack.Instead they come in plastic containers, small enough to fit into one's palm, innocuous enough for a five-year-old to play with and deadly enough to cause cancer or kidney failure. Small wonder household chemicals cause about seven million accidents every year, as Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in the US found. Many of them fool the careful also, for they enter their bodies invisibly and poison them slowly, unlike the chemicals used in warfare.

Look around you these harmful chemicals may be lurking inside your detergent, toys, glass cleaner, room freshener and furniture, or on your shirt, walls and cars. But you may not know because labels on household products in India do not give the exact chemical composition. They are not bound to. Apart from electronic goods and food products, most everyday household products have only voluntary standards, said a senior member of the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis).

When you close the windows of your house, sip water from a bottle or clean dishes in a dishwasher, chances are you pick up a number of chemicals your body does not welcome. The coat of paint on the window could have shed molecules containing lead, a toxic heavy metal. The plastic bottle could have leached nonylphenol ethoxylate (npeo), a carcinogen, into the water. And the detergent you used in the dishwasher could have let loose chlorine in the air that can bring on an asthma attack.

In India no specific regulations limit harmful chemicals in household products, said S K Agrawal, northern region chairman of the Indian Chemical Council. A few chemicals industries under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification need environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to manufacture a certain group of chemicals like pesticides and bleaching agents. "But there is nothing to regulate them in the market," he said. In India almost all regulations for chemicals are process regulations, not product regulations. The factory should comply with discharge standards, but the chemical composition of the product that leaves the factory is unregulated.

So you may not know if the skin irritation you got was because of the detergent. Or the burning sensation in the eye was caused by sodium hydroxide used as a degreaser in surface cleaners.

bis has standardized safety evaluation of detergents but the standards are voluntary, said the bis official. Detergents contain phosphates, which soften water. Phosphates escape through the drain, reach waterbodies, promote excessive plant growth, which chokes fish.

In 1993, India introduced voluntary eco-labelling for detergents free from harmful chemicals like phosphates. It also called for proper labelling of ingredients.

Paints' toxicity card

Concentration of lead in enamel paints sold in Delhi. CSE analysed them in two phases in 2008 and 2009
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No detergent in the country carries the eco label, said the bis official.

H Wadwa, head of product testing at the Voluntary Organisation of Consumer Education in Delhi, has tested products of everyday use for efficacy and safety. He said no labelling for many household products is one of the biggest loopholes in the regulations in India. "Take glass cleaners. They do not display ingredients. Forget the consumer even when we want to do safety tests we have to know what we are looking for," he said.

One such chemical npeo is used in plastics as a wetting agent. It helps dye molecules spread evenly in textiles and leather. It is also used in paints and contraceptives. Studies by Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts, usa, found evidence that it can increase the risk of breast cancer. This has led developed countries, including Japan, Canada, and European Union nations, to regulate the compound. But India does not recognize npeo as a hazardous substance. When npeo degrades it breaks down into nonylphenol, a carcinogen.

Consumer groups have pleaded with the government several times for making regulations on low-level poisoning. "The government is yet to realize that low-level chronic poisoning is far more dangerous than lethal poisoning," said Ravi Agrawal, director of Toxic Links, an ngo in Delhi.

Every moment we are building a stock of unwanted chemicals inside us, molecule by molecule. Our body expels some of them, some never leave us. We use these chemicals for comfort, to ward off diseases and insects. But in some cases the trade-off is not in our favour; the harm outweighs the benefit. Like with lead in paints. It can lower a child's IQ.

Lead in paints
Not many people consider lead when buying paints for house or furniture. Nor do they have the means of making an informed choice; paints do not carry any warning, nor do they list the composition. Lead is one of the 300-odd ingredients used to make paints. It is silvery in its purest form, but turns blue-grey when exposed to air.

Lead is primarily used in paints as pigment to impart colour. It is also added to make paints more durable and corrosion resistant, and for speed drying. Lead chromate (also called chrome yellow) and lead carbonate (also called white lead) are widely used as pigment. Lead chromate is often used to make yellow orange, red and green paints. Lead carbonate is a superior paint pigment used for its opaque quality. Others pigments like red lead and blue lead impart corrosion protection as well as colour to metal surface.

Lab tests
The Delhi ngo, Centre for Science and Environment (cse), tested Indian paints to see the quantity of lead in them. Two sets of tests were carried out; the first tests took place from May to June 2008. A repeat test was carried out in June 2009. The 2008 results were startling. Twenty five samples (five colours) of enamel paint made by the major players--Asian Paints (India), Goodlass Nerolac Paints, now known as Kansai Nerolac, Berger Paints, Shalimar Paints, and ici (India)--were randomly purchased from markets in Delhi between November 2007 and May 2008. Lead was found in 23 of the 25 enamel paint samples. Of these 18 (or 72 per cent of the samples) did not meet the voluntary specification for lead content prescribed by bis. Of the five paint manufacturers only one, ici, did not use lead in its paint formulations (see Paints' toxicity card ).

Phase I May-June 2008

Down to Earth The Centre for Science and Environment procured 25 samples of popular enamel paints from Delhi markets and analysed them for lead content.

Down to Earth The brands tested were Apcolite (Asian Paints), Nerolac (Kansai Nerolac Paints), Luxol (Berger Paints India), Superlac (Shalimar Paints) and Dulux (ICI India). The colours were yellow, orange, green, black and white.

Down to Earth 72% of these samples contained lead much higher than the 1,000 ppm specified by BIS.

Down to Earth The lead concentration varied from zero to 184,733 ppm, the highest amount being present in the deep orange paint of Superlac brand.

Down to Earth All the samples of Dulux brand (ICI) had lead much below the specified limit of 1,000 ppm. White shades of Asian Paints and Nerolac also conformed to the standards.

Down to Earth In order of decreasing lead concentration paint colours can be arranged as Yellow > Orange > Green > Black > White

Phase II May-June 2009

Down to Earth Eight more samples of four brands were procured and analysed. The results showed that deep orange and black paints of Apcolite brand (Asian Paints) contained 29.24 and 28.71 ppm lead, compared to 59,149 ppm and 17,720 ppm respectively found earlier. This showed phasing out of lead.

Down to Earth Down to Earth In case of golden yellow and tractor orange of Nerolac brand the lead concentration was 10.02 ppm and 1,991.9 ppm respectively as compared to 131,254 and 119,086 ppm found earlier. The maker Kansai Nerolac also reduced lead content in at least these two colours.

Down to Earth The golden yellow and bus green of Luxol brand (Berger Paints) showed a lead concentration of 310,721 ppm and 68,105 ppm. In case of golden yellow and black colours of Superlac (Shalimar Paints) the lead content was 287,062 ppm and 5,983.8 ppm


The infiltrator

Lead harms us at every stage of development, but childhood is the most vulnerable
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cse sent all the companies a questionnaire to get their response on removing lead from paints. Of the five companies only two got back, saying they were in the process of phasing out lead from all decorative paints. So cse tested another eight paint samples in June 2009. The new tests showed six of the eight samples still contained lead, of which five did not meet the voluntary bis specification.

A silent epidemic
Lead is one of the common elements. It is also the most common ecological hazard young children face. Among the medical fraternity it is referred to as the silent epidemic. The human body is not designed to process lead. Sustained and large exposures can cause serious damage to health (see The infiltrator).

Children are especially susceptible. Until five years of age they can absorb up to 50 per cent of the lead they ingest, said Diane L Reboy, a legal nursing consultant in California, usa. Once inside their body, it begins damaging their central nervous system and brain that are still developing. The child may begin to perform poorly in exams or have short attention span. Even extremely low levels of lead can impair foetal development, said Arvind Taneja, head of the paediatrics department in Fortis Hospital in Delhi. Adults may find it difficult to concentrate or remember things, feel pain in muscles and joints.

Lead poisoning was documented as early as 1887 when the US medical authorities diagnosed child lead poisoning. In 1904, a physician, James Lockhart Gibson, for the first time linked child lead poisoning to paints in an article in Australian Medical Gazette. The US Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry has declared lead level in blood exceeding 10 (microgramme per deciliter (g/dl) unsafe. The federal agency is considering further bringing down the cut-off for lead.

Studies have shown over 60 per cent children in India may have more than 10 g/dl lead in their blood. In 1999, the George Foundation, a non-profit in Bengaluru, took blood samples of schoolchildren in some major Indian cities. It found over 52 per cent had more than 10 g/dl lead in their blood.

It is easy to expose yourself to lead; you may pick it up when admiring the velvety touch of paint on walls or when walking past a car belching exhaust. Some dyes, batteries, smelting units and soldering on water pipes contain lead. India has banned lead in petrol/diesel, but paint makers are free to use it.

The most common way of lead poisoning is inhaling lead dust. Everyday activities like opening or closing windows glossed with lead-based paints or walking on leaded paint chips can raise lead dust. The dust can float in the air we inhale or settle on the floor and food.

A few years ago researchers from Kasturba Medical College in Mangalore found evidence of lead ingestion through paints. They studied lead levels in the blood of children and their ambience in the city in Karnataka. The results were published in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics in 2004. Of the 104 children studied 11 had over 40g/dl of lead concentration. One, who had a blood lead level of 72.7 g/dl, regularly played in a public park, on a swing coated with a lead-based paint. The paint was pealing off. The researchers asked the municipal officials to remove the paint and use another one without lead. A follow-up examination of the child three weeks later showed that the lead level in his blood reduced to 45.9 g/dl.

An unconcerned industry
Paints, especially in developing countries like India, are the main source of poisoning among children.

Down to Earth
Photograph Surya Sen
Paint makers

The organized sector, represented by six major players, controls 70-75 per cent of the paint market. The unorganized sector comprises 2,000-odd small formulators. Asian Paints is the leader, with over 40 per cent share of the organized market. Kansai Nerolac with 20 per cent share, Berger paints with 17 per cent and ICI with 12 per cent are next biggest players.

That is when paint usage in India is very low; the per capita consumption is 700 grammes, according to the commerce and industry ministry. The world average is 15 kg per person. "With such low consumption there is a tremendous possibility of growth in the paint market," said Sunil Kumar, president of the Small Scale Paints Manufacturing Association. Until recession set in, the Indian paint industry was growing at a steady pace of 15 per cent per annum; it has declined to 9 per cent.

With growing market, the threat of lead poisoning will only become bigger.

Industry estimates the demand of paint in the country at 650,000 tonnes per year. The size of the paint market is Rs 12,000-13,000 crore (see Paint makers on the next page). ici's Dulux is the only brand that did not use lead in its formulations. Asian Paints and Nerolac claim to have phased out lead in their paints since April 2008. The cse tests in 2009 showed near-zero lead in the Asian Paints samples but Nerolac samples contained a little lead.

Asian Paints' president K B S Anand said his company has removed lead from the decorative segment of paints primarily sold for residential purposes and only a few paints in the industrial sector still have lead. Industrial paints are mostly used for painting automobiles and constitute roughly one-third of the paint market.

The most widely used lead substitute is titanium white or titanium dioxide, also used for colouring food. Organic pigments are also used as alternatives. Then there is zirconium that can be mixed in paints for quicker drying and gloss. The barium-zinc-sulfur combination replaces white lead.

Every company in India has the capability and technology to make lead-free paints, said N B Guha, director of the Indian Paint Research Centre in Kolkata. The centre is a joint venture between Jadavpur University and the Indian Paint Association. "All companies are making water-based paints, which are basically lead-free, but the costs are about 1.5 to two times the oil-based paints," he said.

Paint companies complain that lead substitutes not only increase cost but also reduce paint performance. "India has many small and organized paint manufacturers. This makes the paint industry price competitive," said Ashok Saini, senior vice-president of Kansai Nerolac. "Since removing lead in paints has a huge cost impact, the industry has not taken enough steps in reducing it."

But the cost difference for popular shades is negligible, said Ravi Kapoor, managing director of Heubach India, a dye and organic pigment maker.

An ici employee, who is not authorized to speak to the media, said his company is losing its market because it was the first company to switch over to lead-free paints. " ici was the leader in paint in the 1980s but since we phased out lead our products have become more expensive, leaving us with little market share," he said. Asian Paints' president also claimed sales in the decorative segment have become sluggish since his firm shifted to lead-free paints in April 2008.

Saini suggested making it legally binding for manufacturers to remove lead. "It will give a level playing field for all and the industry will effectively bring down lead consumption," he said.

Kapoor said bis has been dilly-dallying making standards for paints mandatory. "Lead in paints has been regulated in all developed countries because of its toxicity, but bis shows no intention of doing so," he said. Kapoor is also a member of the Ecological and Toxicological Association of Dyes and Organic Pigment Manufacturers. The association wrote to bis for making mandatory the standards for lead in paints.

Cap it legally
Like most chemicals, paints in India can be made and sold without any regulations. bis specifications are voluntary. They state "The product (paints, emulsions) shall not contain more than 0.1 per cent by mass of any toxic metals, such as lead, cadmium, chromium (VI) and their compounds." The limit of 0.1 per cent by mass translates to 1,000 parts per million (ppm). A bis official said the paint industry does not follow the guidelines on lead. "This is typically the case with solvent-based paints, where sometimes lead content could be many times the cut-off mark," he added.

Down to Earth
Photograph Meeta Ahlawat
Children could be picking up lead from bright paints in the play corner

The paint industry wants some colours to be exempted from regulations. Guha said the Indian Paints Association has formed a technical committee, which is working with the Centre and bis on regulations to limit lead in paints. "There are a few shades, like of yellow and orange, which cannot be made without using lead. The bis must remove these shades from its shade card," he said.

Voluntary specifications and schemes have not been successful in motivating the industry. In 1995 the environment and forests ministry introduced an optional labelling scheme called eco-mark for products made from environmentally safe chemicals. Paints were included. To qualify for the label paints have to have less than 1,000 ppm lead and no petroleum derivates comprising volatile organic compounds. Till date no paint company has applied for eco-marking their paints, said a scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board, which monitors the eco-mark.

Most developed countries have laws restricting the use of lead in paints to extremely low levels. The US regulates lead content in paint through its independent agency Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission has declared paints and similar surface coating materials containing more than 600 ppm lead as banned hazardous products. Canada and Singapore limit the lead content in paints to 600 ppm.

The European Union in 1988 banned lead carbonate and sulphate pigments in paints. But a year later it eased the ban by allowing leaded paints to be used for restoration and maintenance of works of art and historic buildings. Paints that contain more than 0.15 per cent lead must declare on their label "Contains lead. Should not be used on surfaces liable to be chewed or sucked by children". Australia introduced regulations in 1997 to limit lead in paints to 0.1 per cent of the total volume.

India too needs to regulate lead use, especially since its paint industry is growing. None of the paint samples cse selected carried a warning about lead. Only one brand, Dulux, had a label stating No added lead, mercury, chromium compounds around a mark of green tree.

The harmful effects of lead-based paints have been known for over 100 years. France, Belgium and Austria banned or restricted the use of white lead in 1909. In 1922, the International Labour Conference of the League of Nations recommended banning white lead for interior use. Research in India and elsewhere has conclusively demonstrated that lead is a health hazard of pandemic proportions. So there should be no debate on the harmful effects of lead.

India is one of the few major economies, including China, which has not set mandatory standards for lead in paints. Indian paint is getting a bad name in the world market because of this. In fact, in August this year, University of Cincinnati in the US accused India and China of selling products coated with lead paint. It demanded a global ban on the products. A few companies voluntarily removed lead from household paints (not for industrial ones). This is not enough as cheaper lead-based paints will outcompete the lead-free ones.

Lab study by Sapna Johnson, Nirmali Saikia, Ramakant Sahu, H B Mathur, H C Agarwal. Reporting by Arnab P Dutta, Rajil Menon in Mumbai and J Basu in Kolkata

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