Shock lead levels in oil paints uncovered

Elita Chikwati
Features Editor

Experts are calling for the switching to non-lead paints as the most of the current oil paints contain lead which has been discovered to be poisonous to people, especially children.

Lead has been found to be a threat to the people and economy as well.

Hazardous substances according to the Environmental Management Act CAP 20;27, are any substances whether solid, liquid or gaseous or any organism which is injurious to human health or the environment.

Section 73 of the Act talks of the prohibition of discharge of hazardous substances, chemicals and materials or oil into the environment.

Recent research by academics from the Paediatric Association of Zimbabwe and University of Zimbabwe in partnership with Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) has found out that there is a high level of lead in most of the paints and brands sampled in Zimbabwe.

Lead is being added to paint as a pigment.

The substance can also be used in the manufacturing of paint to give colour, rapid drying and corrosion resistance.

Lead and lead compounds are also found in some cosmetics, traditional medicines and spices.

Organic lead compounds were used extensively as additives in petrol, but this use in now banned in all countries.

The average and median of the concentration of all paints tested in Zimbabwe was over 50 times the recommended regulatory limit of 90ppm and sufficient to present serious health risks.

Lead paints are widely used in homes and schools and once applied they become a long term source of poisoning, forming poisonous dust and flakes that can accidentally be ingested.

This can irreversibly harm a child.

Studies have shown that exposure to lead affects the brain, mental ability to learn, retards speech and causes hearing problems and kidney damages.

This can also result in reproductive health and digestive problems.

According to the study cited above, 70 percent of oil based paints and 60 percent of brands sampled from the market in Zimbabwe contained high levels of lead.

Focus should, however, not only be put on local paints as Zimbabwe also imports from other countries.

While some manufactures stated the lead content in their products, others did not.

Research has shown that lead content in samples from Zimbabwe was greater in coloured paints than in white paints.

All white or cream paint samples did not have lead content above 90ppmm.

This means white paint is less likely to contain lead.

Speaking at a recent stakeholder workshop on the elimination of lead organised by the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) in conjunction with the Environmental Management Agency, Neurologist, Dr Louisa Mudawarima said lead paint remained a major potential source of lead poisoning globally.

“Lead is used in petrol, paint, playgrounds, toys, households, glass, cellular phones, computers, protective clothing, candles and cosmetics,” she said. “There is no level of exposure known to be without harm in both adults and children. Children are particularly vulnerable and can absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults.

“Lead is neurotoxic and even low levels of exposure in childhood can result in reduced intelligence, increased intellectual disability rates, lower educational attainment and reduced future earnings.”

Dr Mudawarima said lead affected body systems and could cause anaemia, stunting and renal and cardiovascular diseases later in life. At the workshop, it was noted that a number of developed countries had banned the use of lead in oil pants and others had come up with regulatory framework to control the use of lead in paints.

Zimbabwe does not have a regulation on lead in paint and stakeholder’s chief among them paint manufacturers are working on switching to non-lead paints.

Stakeholders also greed on the need to formulate a policy that regulates the use of lead in paint.

Stakeholders in the health sector, paint manufacturing industry and the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Tourism and Hospitality are working closely to ensure manufacturers can switch to lead free paint.

In a speech read on his behalf by the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality principal environmental officer, Mrs Pauline Nhunzvi, Deputy Director Mr Abraham Matiza said the Ministry prioritised sustainable environment, tourism and climate resilience which anchored and underpinned economic revival growth.

“Lead is a neurotoxin that causes irreversible harm to human health and the group most vulnerable is the children,” he said. “It is estimated 815 million children — one in three — around the globe have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstreams, which can hinder their cognitive development and limit their future potential. 94 percent of these children are in low and middle income countries.

“Adverse health effects related to lead poisoning account for 1 percent of the global disease burden, including causing 1 million premature deaths annually. Therefore this project has come at the right time where the Zimbabwe paint industry is growing rapidly.”

According to the Ministry, this project will enhance the drive to effective policies to eliminate lead poisoning across the globe looking at the value chain from the sale and manufacture of lead paint worldwide.

Mr Matiza said the project would enhance the drive to effective policies to eliminate lead poisoning across the globe looking at the value chain from the sale and manufacture of lead paint worldwide.

LEED co executive director, Dr Clare Donaldson, said several ingredients in solvent based paints could contain lead and it was advisable to replace each one in a cost effective way.  She said their organisation was ready to assist paint manufacturers to switch to non-lead paints.

“Lead paint has been banned in many countries, but has remained available in Africa, including Zimbabwe,” said Dr Donaldson. “We are working with paint manufactures and governments in 16 countries across three continents to eliminate lead paint.”

Dr Donaldson said manufactures could find other raw materials to use in place of lead and this required collaborative approach.

EMA Environmental Laboratory Manager, Mrs Sylvia Yonisi, said according to Unicef, one in three children worldwide have dangerous levels of lead in their system.“This can cause irreversible damage. This can also hinder education and future contributions to society. Lead poisoning affects intelligence,” she said.

Mrs Yonisi said there was a laboratory in Harare that could test paints for lead.

EMA director environmental management services, Mr Steady Kangata, urged manufacturers to follow best practices for their products to remain competitive on the market.

“It is important to use globally accepted standards. Manufactures should embrace the best practices in paint production,” he said.

Other participants attending the workshop said there was also need to manage the disposal of waste as compounds of lead were being disposed incorrectly.

According to experts, manufactures could still maintain the colours of paint even when not using lead.

Human activities may result in environmental contamination: mining, smelting manufacturing use, recycling and disposal of products made of lead.

Lead is a persistent hazard it remains in the environment in the home and in the human body.

Stakeholders agreed that it was better to ensure prevention through switching to non-lead paint

This is a better and cheaper option than having to deal with the consequences of lead paint later on.

Some countries had switched non-lead paints after realising that paint made up a very small component of their total sales but had the potential to completely destroy their customers’ trust in their brands.

Phasing out of lead in paint has to be done as an industry to keep level the playing field.

Eliminating lead paints contributes to the attainment of SDGs1.2, 3.9 and 12.4 which address poverty, deaths related to hazardous chemicals and the sound management of chemicals.

The UN Environment Programme has made available a Model Law and Guidance for Regulating lead paint.

There is regulation of production, import and sale of paint containing added lead.

According to the UN, this is an effective and low cost way to reduce childhood lead poisoning.

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