Inside The Push To Eliminate Lead From Paint

Photo-Ilustration: Pixabay (garageband)

While many use paint to cover the blemishes on their walls, each coat they apply could end up leaving a stain on the planet. Despite legally binding controls in 87 countries, lead is still commonly used in paint, and experts warn that it’s time to stop brushing aside the hazardous chemical’s human and environmental health impacts.

Every year, an estimated 900,000 people die from lead exposure. Lead exposure can also result in increased risk of antisocial behavior, cardiovascular disease and reduced fertility. Studies have found that childhood exposure to lead results in economic losses of 977 billion US dollars annually.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is taking the lead in addressing this critical issue through pushing for stricter legislation and providing technical support. Alongside the Global Environment Facility, it recently published Lead Paint Reformulation Technical Guidelines to help manufacturers phase out lead. This builds upon UNEP’s long-running advocacy work, including a successful 20-year campaign to end leaded fuel. 

“Lead is extremely hazardous, and there’s no known level of exposure considered safe,” says Mihaela Claudia Paun, UNEP Programme Management Officer. “We must establish laws to phase out lead in paint. The newly released guidelines support evidence-based policymaking and inform decisions at all stages of the policy development process.”

Putting the lid on lead

Lead is commonly added to make paint more vivid and moisture-resistant. But the production, use and decay of lead paint all release the chemical into the air, dust, and soil. From there, it is inhaled, ingested and comes into contact with skin. Lead paint is particularly popular in playgrounds and on furniture. Young children, people with occupational exposure and many living in older houses are especially vulnerable.

However, lead exposure is preventable. The most effective measure is introducing laws that eliminate it at its source, say experts. In 2011, UNEP and the World Health Organization formed the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. A voluntary partnership between governments, academia, non-governmental organizations and paint companies, it is dedicated to phasing out paints that have intentionally added lead.

The Alliance helps States develop and implement laws to curb the use of lead paint. It also encourages industry to voluntarily stop the manufacture, import and sale of lead paints  and supports civil society groups and other stakeholders to raise awareness about the health and environmental impacts of lead paint

The Alliance has recommended that there be no more than 90 micrograms (mg) of lead in each kilogram of paint, a total that experts say provides the best available health protection while still being technically feasible.

In 2012, only 52 countries had mandatory legal requirements focused on lead in paint. Now, with support from the Lead Paint Alliance, 87 countries have such laws, and the Alliance is aiming to reach the 100 mark by 2023. UNEP is also working to introduce stricter lead limits in countries that have existing laws to ensure they can better protect human and environmental health.

UNEP data shows that 100 low- and middle-income countries have yet to set legal limits on lead paint, while six countries with lead paint laws had limits of 1,000 mg/kg or higher.

“While continuing to support countries to adopt lead paint laws, the Lead Paint Alliance is also looking at the issue of compliance and enforcement for countries that have already adopted such a law to ensure effective application on the ground,” says Sandra Averous-Monnery, UNEP’s Officer in charge, Head of Knowledge and Risk Unit.

Reforms and reformulation

Regardless of national laws, paint manufacturers should strive to limit or eliminate lead content from their products, according to the Alliance. Paint manufacturers from China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Jordan and Nigeria participated in a paint reformulation pilot project that informed UNEP’s technical guidelines.

Photo-Ilustration: Pixabay (Pexels)

“In countries where lead paint laws are yet to be enacted, more and more paint companies are moving towards voluntarily phasing out lead and aligning with stricter regulations,” says Averous-Monnery. “This is a good signal for the rest of the industry and governments. It demonstrates corporate social responsibility and prepares them for when a stricter legal limit is implemented.”

A recent lab test of an Ecuadorian company’s yellow paint found a lead content of 34,689 mg/kg before reformulation efforts. With technical guidance from UNEP, the company was able to produce an alternative paint that had less than 56 mg/kg of lead content. This is done through paint reformulation, which involves substituting lead pigment with less hazardous alternatives and may also require changes in the production process.

Binghua Wang, assistant general manager of Zhejian Tiannu Group Paint, an SME in China that participated in the pilot reformulation project, told UNEP that the company joined the project to protect human health and prepare itself for the future.

“There is ongoing public concern in our country about the effects of the use of lead paint on human health and the environment,” she says. Her company participated in the paint pilot project to support the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and prepare for the introduction of new national lead paint standards, she says.  

To picture a future free of lead paint, more paint manufacturers and countries should take action and improve legally binding controls, experts say.

“Countries and stakeholders have materials available to adopt lead pant laws for a success similar to the end of leaded fuel,” says Averous-Monnery. “This success would be possible only if all the stakeholders, regardless of whether they are partners of the Lead Paint Alliance or not, are committed and engaged.”

Source: UNEP