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Children and Pregnant Mothers in Developing World Face Widespread Exposure to Toxic Lead in Paint
22/ 10/ 2013

Children and Pregnant Mothers in Developing World Face Widespread Exposure to Toxic Lead in PaintReport Released During International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action Says Regulation and Voluntary Action Can Swiftly Lift Health Burden

Nairobi, 22 October 2013 - More than 90 years after the League of Nations called for a ban on lead in paint, and despite the existence of many safe alternatives, young children and pregnant mothers in the developing world are still exposed to high levels of the dangerous toxin through unsafe paints.
A study by the UN Environment Programme, released during the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action (organized by the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint), analyzed enamel decorative paints from nine countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia and Uruguay.
The report finds that the majority of the paints tested would not meet regulatory standards established in most highly industrialized countries- for example, 90 parts per million (ppm) in the United States and Canada-and that some contain astonishingly high and dangerous levels of lead.
"In this day and age, it is quite frankly breathtaking that parents painting their child's nursery a cheerful red, or handing their child a colourful toy may, through no fault of their own be exposing that child to a pernicious and damaging toxin: lead," said Nick Nuttall, UNEP's Spokesperson and Director of Communications.
"Each year, according to World Health Organization figures, childhood lead exposure contributes to an estimated 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities," he added. "This report seeks to catalyze action by raising awareness among governments, manufacturers and consumers not just that the problem exists, but that there are cheap and safe alternatives to lead already in use that can lift this health burden in a very short time."
WHO research shows that 99 per cent of children affected by high exposure to lead live in low- and middle-income countries. An estimated 143,000 deaths per year result from lead poisoning and lead paint is a major contributor to this.
"Lead poisoning remains the number one environmental health concern for children globally, and lead paint is a major flashpoint for children's potential lead poisoning," said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment. "The good news is that exposure to lead paint can be entirely stopped through a range of measures to restrict the production and use of lead paint."
Worldwide, 30 countries have already phased out the use of lead paint. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, co-led by WHO and UNEP, has set a target of 70 countries by 2015.
"In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, governments agreed a goal that by 2020 chemicals should be used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment-action to ban paint with excessive lead will assist towards this 2020 goal," Mr. Nuttall said.
A total of 234 cans of enamel decorative paint were purchased and tested in a lab in the United States, with the assistance of IPEN, a global network of health and environmental non-governmental organizations that has collected and analyzed decorative paints in more than thirty developing countries and countries with economies in transition. 
The report finds that few nations have established regulatory frameworks, but those that have generally exhibit lower lead paint levels. Both Chile and Uruguay have national executive decrees that prohibit the production, import, distribution, sale and use of decorative paints with a lead concentration above 600 ppm, and all of the paints tested in these two countries had low total lead concentrations.
In each of the other seven countries, however, two or more of the samples of enamel decorative paints had lead content greater than 10,000 ppm.
In four of these countries, at least one of the decorative paints tested had a lead concentration at or above 99,000 ppm lead. In five of the nine countries, more than half of the decorative paint samples tested had lead content greater than 600 ppm lead, the regulatory limit in many other countries.
Despite the high levels of lead-which is normally added as a pigment and is therefore most present in bright colours such as yellow and red-only 20 out of the sampled paint cans offered information about lead content, the vast majority in Uruguay.
While the report covers nine countries, previous research by IPEN and others shows that lead levels remain high in other countries with economies in transition. For example, a study in published in September 2012 by the Kenyan NGO iLima found an average lead concentration of 14,900 ppm in 31 samples of household paint.
Over the last seven years, similar studies found equally unsettling concentrations in other African nations: Cameroon, 23,100 ppm; Egypt, 26,200; Nigeria (two studies), 37,000 and 15,750 ppm; Senegal 5,870 ppm; South Africa, 19,860; and Tanzania 14,500 ppm.
"While this study shows many nations face a grave problem, it always very clearly demonstrates that established and enforced government regulations on lead levels in paint have a strong positive impact," said Sara Brosche, Project Manager for IPEN's lead paint projects. "However, paint manufactures have a responsibility to act on their own, particularly when there is virtually no associated negative economic impact for their businesses. There is absolutely no reason why paints with high levels of lead should continue to be sold and poison children."
The report recommends action in three distinct areas:

Regulatory Frameworks: National efforts to promote the establishment of an appropriate legal and regulatory framework to control the manufacture, import, export, sale and use of lead paints and products coated with lead paints should be encouraged. The evidence of paints with very low lead contents coexisting in the market with equivalent lead paint suggests there should be few economic barriers to the introduction of legal or regulatory controls and the elimination of lead paint.
Public Awareness: There is a need for information campaigns in countries where results show the presence of lead paint on the market. These campaigns should inform the public about the hazards of lead exposure, especially in children; the presence of lead decorative paints for sale and use on the national market; lead paint as a significant source of childhood lead exposure; and availability of technically superior and safer alternatives.
Voluntary Action and Labeling: Paint manufacturers in countries that lack a well-enforced national lead paint control regime are encouraged to eliminate lead compounds from their paint formulations, especially of those paints likely to contribute to lead exposure in children and others. Paint manufacturers also are encouraged to consider voluntary participation in programmes that provide third party paint certification that no lead has been added to their paint, and to label products in ways that help consumers identify paints that do not contain added lead.

Lead in paint is a problem because painted surfaces deteriorate with time and when disturbed. If there is lead in the paint, the lead then contaminates household dust and soils surrounding the home. Children ingest lead from dusts and soils during normal hand to mouth behavior. Damage to children's intelligence and mental development occurs, even when there are no obvious or clinical signs of lead poisoning. Recent World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines indicate that there is no known acceptable lead exposure level for children.  
When children are exposed to lead, this tends to decrease their performance in school and their lifelong productivity as part of the national labor force. A recent study investigated the economic impact of childhood lead exposure on national economies and estimated a total cumulative loss of $977 billion international dollars per year for all low and middle income countries. The estimated economic loss in Africa is $134.7 billion dollars or 4.03 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Its use creates a health problem for many years into the future. Even in countries that have banned leaded paint decades previously, such paint continues to be a source of exposure until it is finally stripped and replaced. The cost of replacing lead paint means that people living in older, poorly-maintained housing are particularly at risk, and this disproportionately affects economically-deprived communities. 
The full report can be downloaded from the following link:
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint (GAELP)
Managed by WHO and UNEP, GAELP aims to phase out the manufacture and sale of paints containing lead and eventually to eliminate the risks from such paint. The full report can be downloaded from the GAELP website:
The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)
SAICM-to which UNEP provides the Secretariat-is a policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world. SAICM has as its overall objective the achievement of the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that, by 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment. This "2020 goal" was adopted by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 as part of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. For more information, visit
IPEN is a leading global organization of 700 non-governmental organizations from 116 countries working to protect human health and the environment from harms caused by toxic chemical exposure. For more information, visit
For further information, please contact:
UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi)+254 723 939
Nick Nuttall, UNEP Director of Communications and Spokesperson+254 733 632755, +41
Sara Brosche, IPEN+46 31

Further Resources
Download full report
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint (GAELP)
The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)
UNEP and Harmful Substances