Rich countries banned deadly lead pigments years ago. So how come they export 28,000 tonnes a year to poorer countries, asks campaigner Perry Gottesfeld.
Many battles have been waged to eradicate disease around the world, but rarely does the same battle have to be fought twice. Sadly, that is the struggle we face with one of the most common and yet entirely avoidable public health hazards: lead paint.
International efforts to get lead out of paint began in 1921 under the League of Nations. Most Western countries enacted laws decades ago, but people living in poorer countries rarely enjoy such protection. Lead paint is still readily available throughout the developing world – often containing lead compounds manufactured by Western companies.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin with no known safe exposure level. Even tiny amounts can cause brain damage in children, leading to loss of function, decreased IQ scores and behavioural problems including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We also know that children exposed to lead have a greatly increased likelihood of becoming criminals in adulthood.
Less well known is the link between lead and heart disease. Low-level exposure is responsible for 674,000 cardiovascular deaths annually. That’s five times as many as result from cancers caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos and benzene.
The health impacts of lead at very low exposure levels have been acknowledged by the World Health Organization and other health authorities. In the US, the National Toxicology Program conducted a review of the evidence and concluded that there is no known threshold below which effects do not occur. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted a goal to “reduce all lead exposure, to the extent feasible”.
With all this bad news one would think that the use of lead would be on the way out – but the opposite is true. Since 1995, global lead production has grown by more than 70 per cent.
Much of this goes into lead batteries for booming industries such as telecommunications, solar power and electric vehicles. But a good deal goes into ridiculous and indefensible applications where safer substitutes are readily available. Top of this list are pigments and drying agents added to paints and plastics – compounds such as red lead and chrome yellow that are as anachronistic as they sound.
Using these lead additives cuts the cost of raw materials by 1 to 2 per cent, but lead and unleaded paints are sold at the same retail price. Unbelievably, both large and small companies have told me that they will continue this money-saving practice until it becomes illegal to do so.
The continuing use of lead paint in the developing world first came to widespread attention in 2008 with the publication of studies from China and India which made it clear that the problem was larger and more widespread than anyone imagined.
Toxics Link, an NGO based in India, followed up with a study conducted in 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas. It found most of the new paints it tested contained high concentrations of lead. Similar surveys have now been done in almost 40 countries. All show a similar pattern.
In 2009 a group of NGOs brought the issue to the United Nations. The result was an international agreement to completely phase out the use of lead paint. We are still waiting.
At the same time the UN Environment Program and WHO launched the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. The hope was that all stakeholders would pull together. To date NGOs and some governments have joined this partnership, but industry participation has been feeble.
Eight countries in Asia and Africa have national efforts run by NGOs, but only one, in Sri Lanka, has succeeded in persuading its government to act. This country-by-country effort will go nowhere unless global health funders and governments come up with the resources and political will to accomplish the goal, especially given that demand for household paint is growing rapidly in the developing world.
One major obstacle is that the problem remains largely hidden from view. Few paints that contain lead are labelled accordingly and few of the people affected have noticeable symptoms. As a result, most of the millions of exposed children and adults are never identified as having lead poisoning.
However, we can’t just blame lack of awareness or the greed of small companies operating on narrow profit margins.
Two years ago my colleagues in Cameroon took me to visit the largest paint companies in the country to talk to them about our laboratory test results showing high levels of lead in most of their household paints.
When we showed up at the factory gate of one of the worst offenders, Seigneurie, I was shocked to discover that it was owned by US-based PPG, the world’s second largest paint company. When we politely asked PPG to do the right thing, it ignored us. Only after the story appeared in its hometown newspaper in Pittsburgh did the company agree to reformulate all of its decorative paints globally. PPG has yet to agree to take the lead out of its industrial coatings.
PPG is not alone. According to trade figures from 2011, US firms export over 7000 tonnes of lead pigments a year and European Union companies 21,000 tonnes, 4000 tonnes of which come from the UK. German giant BASF only agreed to phase out lead pigments when the EU announced restrictions which come into force at the end of next year.
In 1786 Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend on the hazards of lead exposure and asked, when will we ever learn? It seems we may have to poison yet another generation before we do.
(Article by Perry Gottesfeld, who is the executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, an NGO based in San Francisco that is dedicated to eliminating lead paint around the world).