05 Mar 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

UN Environment protects future generations from Lead toxins in paint

“There is no known quantity of lead that is not harmful to humans. It is “particularly toxic to the developing brains of young children,” Mr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, Associate Professor and Associated Faculty Member New York University.


The Business Case for Phasing out Lead in Paint, took place at the Third UN Environment Assembly and tackled concerns about the health and economic costs of exposure to lead in paint.

The panel was composed of:

  • Ms. Walker Smith: Director, Office of Global Affairs and Policy, US Environment Protection Agency, and Chair of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint,
  • Mr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP: Associate Professor and Associated Faculty Member New York University,
  • Dr. Mike Witt : Corporate Director, Health and Environmental Research, DOW Chemical,
  • Mr. James M. Donovan: CEO, ADEC Innovation,
  • Ms. Alexa Burr: Director, Regulatory & Technical Affairs American Chemistry Council,
  • Mr. Alf Wills : Deputy Director-General of Environmental Advisory Services South Africa,
  • Dr. Martin Engelman: Director-General German Pain & Printing Ink Association.

The hazardous effects of lead in paint

There is no known quantity of lead that is not harmful to humans. It is particularly toxic to the developing brains of young children, reducing their cognitive function and robbing them of their intellectual birthright.

The economic cost of low level lead exposure to children in low and middle-income countries alone is US$977 billion a year (through reduced cognitive ability). This is 1 percent of global GDP. Whilst lead levels are at safe levels in most of the developed world, lead in paint in the developing world is at epidemic levels of “10,000, 20,000, 50,000 even 100,000 parts per million”. The detrimental cost of lead in paint is correspondingly 4 percent of Africa’s GDP.

The irreversible neurological and behavioral effects of lead reduce children’s capabilities and therefore society’s potential. A reduced capacity for society directly conflicts with the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly as the poor and vulnerable are most affected by this issue.

Despite its high economic and social costs, the issue of lead in paint tends to be overlooked. Only 68 countries have legal limits on lead in paint. An alliance is needed to confront lead in paint - similar to the alliance that successfully dealt with lead in gas.

Progress on removing lead in paint

Walker Smith encouraged those present to support the UNEA 3 Resolution “eliminating exposure to lead paint and promoting environmentally sound management of waste lead-acid batteries”. This resolution was eventually passed.

Moreover, every member of the panel from the chemical industry described how their companies were involved in addressing this problem. Alexa Burr affirmed that “The International Council for Chemical Associations is completely committed to the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint”. Dr. Mike Witt of DOW described how Dow is conducting research into safe lead alternatives. James Donovan further stated that ADEC Innovations provides industry expertise in sustainability and environmental data services to help businesses reduce lead in paint.

The way forward

To successfully eradicate lead in paint and reduce lead blood levels - five important steps need to be taken:

  1. Regulation: evidence shows that the most effective way to deal with lead in paint is through regulation and an outright ban. Countries need to implement lead paint laws, which many currently do not have.
  2. Enforcement: regulating lead on paper does not mean that it is regulated in practice and some nations with these laws still struggle to keep lead in paint at safe levels. This enforcement includes officials inspecting manufactured paint and pigment and training customs to spot lead levels of imported paint.
  3. Incentives: businesses need encouragement to find lead in paint alternatives. Examples include: IPEN’s lead free paint badge and the South African Paint Association requiring their members (about 80-90% of the market) to sign a pledge to only produce lead free paint.
  4. Education: consumers need to be made aware of the dangers and high presence of lead in paint around them.
  5. Research and Development: businesses need to research replacement alternatives for lead in their paint.

For these activities to succeed, four measures were recommended:

  1. Investment: The South African Government estimates that it will cost around 200 million Rand ($16 million) of investment from government for enforcement which includes border control, equipment and training. In addition, it will cost them 115 million Rand ($9 million) on product testing and awareness campaigns. Governments need to invest themselves in order to leverage private sector investment.
  2. Partnership and communication: there needs to be communication between manufacturers and governments. Manufacturers should share with each other their learnings on eliminating lead in paint - particularly from developed to developing countries.
  3. Target small and medium sized enterprises and the informal sector: most paints with high lead levels are found in small and medium sized enterprises which are also mostly found in the informal sector. The informal sector needs to be included in the enforcement of laws and other private and/or public activities.

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