Only 38% UN members have laws for minimum lead concentration in paints

This is worrying as lead contamination can have adverse health impacts on humans

By DTE Staff
Published: Sunday 20 October 2019
Paints. Photo: Getty Images

As World Lead Prevention Week starts on October 20, 2019, a new United Nations (UN) report has revealed that many of its members do not have proper laws inhibiting the concentration of lead in items like paints.

According to the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), only 13 countries have laws which prescribe that lead concentration should not be more than 90 particles per million (ppm).

Ninety ppm is the concentration limit recommended by the Model Law and Guidance for Regulating Lead Paint published by the UNEP in 2018.

It is the lowest and most protective regulatory limit for lead paints that has been set in India, the United States (US), Bangladesh, Canada, Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Nepal and the Philippines.

These 13 countries are part of 73 countries out of the UN’s 193 members, which, as of September 30, 2019, had confirmed that they had legally binding controls on lead in paint, according to the UNEP report.

As many as three countries had set 100 ppm, 13 had set 600 ppm and six had set the limit of 1,000 ppm or higher. 

Eighty-five had stated that they did not have legally binding controls, while information was unavailable for the remaining 35 countries. 

Lead is added to paints for various reasons, including enhancing the colour, reducing corrosion and decreasing the drying time. However, lead can reach soil, dust and groundwater through weathering or peeling of the patin. And, it has several adverse health impacts.

Lead exposure accounted for 1.06 million deaths from long-term effects and 24.4 million disability adjusted life years known as DALYs in 2007, the UNEP report said, quoting the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, Seattle.

“Lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, resulting in decreased IQ and increased behavioural problems. It can also cause anaemia, increase the risk of kidney damage and hypertension, and impair reproductive function,” the report noted.

“Young children and pregnant women (whose developing foetus can be exposed) are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead. Even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and irreversible neurological damage,” it added. 

The largest economic burden of lead exposure was borne by low- and middle-income countries, the report stated, quoting a study done by New York University.

“Estimated annual costs (in international dollars) of lead exposure by global region, based on loss of IQ, include the following: Africa — $134.7 billion; Latin America and the Caribbean — $142.3 billion; and Asia — $699.9 billion,” it said.

According to more than 100 studies conducted since 20009, lead was being widely sold in low-and middle-income countries, the study said. 

“Most of the paints tested for lead were found to exceed the 90 ppm or 600 ppm legal limit that has been set by many countries as an achievable limit. In addition, many of these paints contained very high levels of lead, above 10,000 ppm of the dry weight of the paint,” it said. 

Region-wise, six countries in the entire African region — only 11 per cent — had lead laws. Paint testing conducted in 21 countries in the African region revealed that six to 86 per cent of the samples had lead above the prescribed limits of 90 ppm or 600 ppm depending on the country. 

“The annual economic cost of childhood lead exposure in the African region is estimated to be $134.7 billion, or 4.03 per cent of regional gross domestic product (GDP),” the UNEP said. 

In Asia-Pacific, nine (23 per cent) countries had enacted laws. Here, the paint testing studies found 16-95 per cent samples containing lead above the set standards depending from country to country. The annual economic cost of childhood lead exposure in this region was found to be 1.88 per cent of the regional GDP.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, eleven (33 per cent) countries had paint laws. In countries, where there was no limit prescribed yet, 27-90 per cent samples were found containing lead in excess of 90-600 ppm.

In contrast, where such laws were present, 0-100 per cent samples were found violative of the law. In North America, both0 the US and Canada had paint laws. No study had been done in these countries, the UNEP report said.

Forty-two countries (78 per cent) in the European region had such laws. Here, 26-94 per cent of samples were found containing more lead than what was permissible in the respective countries.

Even though India enacted a law in 2016 saying lead concentration was not permissible above 90 ppm in paints, a study released by New Delhi-based non-profit and research organisation Toxics Link said that out of the total 20 samples it collected, only three subscribed to the limit.

Others had lead content from 101 ppm to 130,797 ppm. And, all these samples were manufactured after the lead law was enforced in 2017. These samples were collected from Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur and Rajasthan.

Earlier, another New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment had done a study to check the presence of lead in paints in 2009-10. It found that that as many as 72 per cent of the samples contained lead levels much higher than the limits prescribed by the Bureau of Industry Standards.

The UNEP report said the cost of eliminating the use of lead compounds in decorative paint was much lower than removing these paints from surfaces in homes.

“By contrast, the economic cost is low for eliminating the use of lead compounds in new decorative paints. In fact, many manufacturers have already successfully reformulated their paint products to avoid the intentional addition of lead,” it said.

It added: “According to the paint industry, the reformulation of residential and decorative paints to eliminate lead additives is feasible, and the technical and cost impacts are manageable.”

The report also recommended that establishing laws and informing people about the hazardous effects of lead in paints remained key measures to curb its growing menace. 

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