The international lead poisoning prevention week of action takes place between 23 – 29 October, with the aim of raising awareness of the health and other risks posed by lead and what can be done to combat them. This year’s theme focuses on lead in paint – the greatest risk of exposure for humans.
What exactly are the health risks posed by lead in paint? And is lead in paint really still a problem in the pan-European region? As part of the awareness-raising week, find out the answers to these questions and more by reading the below Q&A with renowned Russian scientist Dr. Olga Speranskaya – named a UN Environment Champion of the Earth in 2011.
Dr Speranskaya has been garnering headlines worldwide for her work to reduce the harmful impact of toxic chemicals in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Dr. Speranskaya formed a civil society network that has grown to include NGO groups, governmental bodies and academics. The campaign succeeded in pushing national governments to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which aims to eliminate the release of such products into the environment.
As co-chair of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), Dr Speranskaya has helped NGOs implement more than 70 projects on toxic chemicals in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. As well as being a UN Environment Champion of the Earth, Dr Speranskaya received the Goldman environmental prize in 2009.
What is lead paint?
When lead compounds are added as ingredients in the manufacture of a paint product, the paint produced is considered to be lead paint. Usually these compounds are used to improve color and are known as pigments, which also protect the paint and the surface it covers from degradation under the sunlight. Some compounds are added to speed drying, or reduce corrosion on metal surfaces. Lead compounds may also be present in coatings, including varnishes, lacquers, stains, enamels, glazes, or primers. Even if lead is not specifically added to paints during the manufacture process, it can be found as a contaminant in raw materials that are used to make paint products. Sometimes paint can be contaminated with lead at a factory where other lead products are made. This can occur where industrial and decorative paints are made at the same facility.
Who are vulnerable to lead paint? What are the possible health impacts if this issue is not addressed?
“There is no known safe level of lead exposure,” according to the World Health Organisation. Lead is toxic even in small amounts. It harms adults and children, causing severe health problems that include anemia and joint pain, as lead impacts the skeleton and blood system. Exposure to lead also affects the nervous, reproductive and immune systems, often causing irreversible, life-long damage that cannot be treated. However, children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. The younger the child is the more harmful exposure to lead can be. Lead is transferred to the fetus from the mother’s body across the placenta, making children born pre-polluted. Lead exposure continues during nursing when lead is transferred through breast milk. Also, children suffering from malnutrition absorb ingested lead much faster. Young kids exposed to lead run the risk of harm to their nervous system, which results in learning disabilities, difficulties in school, and increased risk of behavioral problems. These can include violent behavior and poor work performance at a later stage. A recent study conducted by the New York University School of Medicine concludes that in low- and middle-income countries the burden associated with childhood lead exposure amounted to 1.20% of the world’s GDP in 2011, suggesting that these countries face the largest burden of lead exposure.
Is lead in paint still a problem in European countries? Can you explain how this is being addressed?
In the European Union, adding a number of specified lead compounds (such as lead chromate) to paints and products for so-called “consumer use” is not allowed. The use of lead in indoor decorative paints is prohibited, and products are regularly monitored to check compliance with the requirement. However, other European countries, especially those from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA), still face significant problems associated with lead paint. In 2007 and 2008, IPEN analyzed home use paints on the markets of 11 countries, including five EECCA countries. In every one of these countries we found dangerously high levels of lead in paints of more than 10,000 parts per million (ppm). This year we analyzed paint samples from nine EECCA countries. Unfortunately, lead contents in many samples substantially exceed the most progressive regulation of 90 ppm adopted in the US, Canada, the Philippines and Nepal. Some paints contain a total lead concentration above 600 parts per million - the regulatory limit for lead in decorative paint in, for example, South Africa, Brazil and Sri Lanka. Once again some paints reveal extremely high levels of lead of 10,000 ppm and even more. The highest lead levels were found in brightly colored paints - yellow, green and red ones.
Some good news is that this time the studies found more lead-free paints available on the market in EECCA countries, which justifies countries’ ability to manufacture paints with no lead compounds. However, consumers cannot choose a lead-free paint for themselves if labelling on paint cans does not provide useful information. IPEN studies confirmed the presence of lead in some paints specifically labelled as "lead-free." I believe that the situation with lead paint in EECCA is the result of poor legislation and enforcement in the countries. Seven EECCA countries do not have regulations on lead in paint. Five other countries, which are members of the Eurasian Economic Council (EEC), have developed a draft technical regulation on the safety of paint that prohibits the use of lead in paints for home use. Though this document was prepared in 2011, it has not been approved yet. For now, EEC countries have to follow uniform sanitary requirements, which state that paints must not contain driers containing lead in quantities greater than 0.5% (5,000 ppm) dry residue. This limit is far too high and does not adequately protect people’s health. Our data confirmed that even this standard was violated in all EEC countries.
Numerous research studies in different countries reveal that if lead is not added to paints purposefully, and reasonable care to prevent contamination is exercised, then lead levels will be under 90 parts per million. These findings may be associated with naturally occurring lead in mineral pigments or with lead contamination in the production process. Nevertheless, 90 ppm is the most progressive quantitative limit of lead in paint, and serves to help monitor the production and trade processes. This is especially relevant to EECCA countries that lack lead in paint regulations, the necessary laboratory capacity, and the funds to maintain regular monitoring of lead levels in paints in order to support requirements similar to those of the EU.
Adoption of a 90 ppm standard would simplify international trade and would guarantee prevention of the deliberate addition of lead compounds to indoor decorative paints, thus substantially minimizing health risks from lead paint. It would also facilitate monitoring and enforcement of the legislation and encourage paint manufacturers to phase-out lead from paint for good.
Can lead in paint be replaced by another substance? At what cost?
IPEN studies of lead content in paints available on the markets of developing countries and countries in transition proved the ability of manufacturers, both local and external, to produce lead-free paint of white and bright colors. Non-leaded paint compounds are known and have been widely available for decades. Paint manufacturers can use them and monitor the production process closely to ensure proper quality control procedures to avoid unintentional contamination of paint with lead. Information sharing within the supply chain is needed to ensure that vendors of paint ingredients know that lead contamination of paint compounds is not acceptable. IPEN has developed a guidance document on how to replace leaded compounds in paint with safer alternatives together with a professional paint chemistry expert that can be accessed here.
IPEN research conducted in seven Asian countries showed that cost-effective reformulation alternatives are available for all lead-containing paint ingredients, and a high retail price is not necessarily a guarantee for low lead content of the paint. All paint formulation is a matter of finding the right combination of components to achieve the indented color and quality of the paint, so even though some replacement pigment may be more expensive by themselves this will have very little effect on the overall production price in the end. Paint manufacturers in many countries have told us that the cost of replacing lead in paint is very low, and can easily be done without raising product prices.
Can you share some steps the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint has taken to advocate on and eliminate lead in paint in the pan-European region?
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint is a partnership initiated by UNEP and WHO that unites all stakeholders committed to eliminate lead from paint. This great initiative was in response to a decision taken by the International Conference on Chemicals Management of 2009, when lead in paint was identified as a priority issue of global concern. Since then, the Alliance has been part of many initiatives in different countries and regions including the pan-European region, where it provided participants with information on lead paint, available alternatives, recommendations and guidance that could be adapted to fit individual events and outreach efforts.
At the Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Workshop on the Establishment of Legal Limits on Lead in Paint that was held in Chisinau, Moldova in May this year, the participants highlighted the importance of the Alliance as a global partnership and welcomed its efforts towards elimination of lead from paints by 2020. The Government of the Republic of Moldova represents the CEE and EECCA region at the Alliance’s UN Environment-WHO Advisory Board, where it shares the commitment of others to promote the implementation of the Alliance’s goal and objectives.
At the workshop in Chisinau, Mr. Valeriu Munteanu, Minister of Environment of the Republic of Moldova, highlighted the importance of the regional meetings as an opportunity to discuss and agree on future actions and strategies for developing legally-binding legislation, regulations and standards for lead in paint. This is in line with one of the Alliance’s key objectives aimed at promoting “the establishment of appropriate national regulatory frameworks to stop the manufacture, import, export, sale and use of lead paints.”
What advice would you give to a country/counterpart in another country trying to promote, advocate for policy and action on lead in paint?
I believe it is important for more countries and organisations to join the Alliance and commit to the implementation of its objectives. There may be different situations at the national level in terms of available legislation, voluntary industry commitments or level of public awareness. However, joint efforts are needed to prevent childhood lead poisoning globally. IPEN’s experience in multiple developing countries and countries with economies in transition proves that joint actions to eliminate lead from paint can bring positive results. IPEN encourages governments to work with all relevant stakeholders to continue developing lead paint regulation and ensure its enforcement and industry to voluntarily phase out lead paint.