Phasing out toxic paints ought to be everyone’s priority

Kenya recently joined other nations to mark the 5th International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, an annual event dedicated to catalysing action to eliminate household paints containing toxic heavy metal lead and raise awareness about their devastating health and environmental impacts.

The thrust of the initiative is to urge paint manufacturers locally and globally to substitute the chemical lead in their paint brands with safer alternatives before the year 2020.

This is because lead paints are currently a major source of contamination and exposure since lead in motor vehicle fuel was phased out in Kenya and other countries in the recent past, resulting in tremendous health, environment and economic benefits around the world. 

Lead paints are still widely used in our homes, schools, public buildings, toys and furniture, with children, pregnant women and industrial workers being most vulnerable to exposure and suffering devastating health impacts.

The continual exposure of children to lead has staggered economic and other costs for Kenya and other countries, as it weakens intellectual development and learning abilities.

In adults, exposure is linked to a host of health and reproductive problems including high blood pressure, kidney complications, decline in mental functioning, reduced sperm count or abnormal sperms as well as miscarriages and premature births among others.

Banned lead

The developed world banned lead in paint in the 1970s and '80s while in most of the developing world, lead paint is still legal despite the fact that alternative lead-free paint is affordable and easily available.

Beginning 2013, the issues of lead in paint came into Kenya's public domain and since then, measurable progress has been made towards reducing exposure and phasing out lead in paint.

Kenya and Tanzania have now joined South Africa and Algeria as the only countries in Africa to have lead paint standards. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has developed a national lead paint standard of total lead content limit of 90 parts per million (ppm). Any paint containing up to 90ppm total lead is a “lead free paint” as it is not technically practicable to set a “zero” limit for lead content in paint because natural clays and other raw materials may contain some lead residues.

It is therefore technically possible for a manufacturer to reduce the lead content in paint to very low levels by avoiding the intentional use of leaded raw materials during manufacturing processes.

It is important to note that very high levels of lead in paint have been previously tested in some paints available to consumers in Kenya, where the highest levels exceeded 10,000ppm.

Paint manufacturers

Some paints with lead content of less than 90ppm cost the same as those with 6,000ppm. Paint manufacturers can achieve lead-free paint of less than 90ppm total lead content by using unleaded materials that are readily available. In most cases, water-based paints do not contain added lead.

However, without enforcement of lead paint laws, lead compounds will still be added to paint to give it certain desired characteristics such as bright colour, reduced corrosion on metal surfaces or faster drying time, despite the fact that alternatives are widely available to paint manufacturers all over the world.

Once the standard comes into force, the Government will take action to ban the manufacture, import, sale and use of paints containing lead.

There will be mandatory requirements for certification of compliance with legal limits of 90ppm total lead content in paint, based on international accreditation. This will severely limit the total amount of lead content in paints thereby reducing exposure to lead.

The East African Community is considering a similar regional paint standard of 90ppm because of environmental concerns and to avoid trade barriers.

It is encouraging that a number of local paint manufacturers have taken voluntary steps to make their products safer by not adding lead and other toxic compounds. Such initiatives deserve support from the Government and other stakeholders, including consumers.

Dr Were is a lecturer in the University of Nairobi’s Chemistry Department and an Advisory Group Member of Lead Paint Alliance ([email protected])

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