Accelerate efforts to phase out lead-based paints in Kenya

At the end of last month, Kenya joined the rest of the global community in marking the annual International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action.

Paint containing lead remains one of the major sources of lead exposure and a common cause of clinical lead toxicity. This is because paints are extensively used in our homes, schools, building, toys, furniture and playground equipment. Paints containing lead are also commonly used in industries, vehicles and in road marking. Lead compounds are added to paints to enhance their colour, speed up drying time and prevent corrosion of metal surfaces.

Freshly formulated or applied lead paints are not an immediate source of lead exposure. Surfaces painted with lead-based paints deteriorate over time, peel off and the paint becomes airborne. Motor vehicle paintworks that involve sanding of painted surfaces and welding contribute to these exposures. Renovations, demolitions and re-painting activities may result in lead-containing dust. Raw materials for the manufacture of lead-based paints become airborne during manufacturing processes and are highly persistent in the environment and settle down as dust. They can easily be inhaled, ingested and contaminate the soil and water and get into humans through the different food chain.

Lead can damage the brain and nervous system, resulting in decreased IQ and increased behavioural problems. It can also cause anaemia, increase the risk of kidney damage and hypertension, and impair reproductive function. Young children and women of reproductive age are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead. Even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and irreversible neurological damage.

In 2018, Kenya made tremendous progress in establishing the East Africa Standards for Paints and Allied Products with a legal limit of 90 parts per million (ppm) to regulate and phase out lead in the East African Region. The manufacturers are therefore capable of producing lead-free paint, with total lead content lower than 90 ppm by avoiding the use of raw materials containing lead during their manufacturing processes. The most effective way of banning use of lead paint is to enforce the legal limit of 90 ppm total lead in paint to protect human health and the environment.

Research conducted between 2016 and 2018 in the paint formulation area in Kamukunji by Lorna Namung of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Technology, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, revealed high airborne lead level that exceeded the permissible exposure limit for the work environment as per the US Occupational Safety Act.

Another study carried out during the same period by Lilian Njeri Mwai, a post-graduate student in the University of Nairobi's Chemistry department, showed that all the 16 automotive paint samples from the retail shops had total lead levels above the set limit of 90 ppm. The concentrations ranged from 221-2688 ppm. However, this concentration were relatively lower than from formal retail shops although only one of the 16 samples had concentration within the limit. This implies that Kenyan manufacturers were still using leaded materials in the automotive paints. 

With a legal limit in place, we expect that paint makers will not add leaded materials during the manufacturing processes. Currently, post-graduate students and researchers are carrying out various research that will inform the policy on the levels of compliance in the paint industry. The National Multi-Sectoral Coordination Committee on Sound Chemical Management under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Kenya Chemical Society, among other entities, should ensure that chemicals are managed in a sound manner.

More importantly, the Nationally Environment Management Authority is developing regulation on the management of toxic and hazardous chemicals and materials. These efforts will ensure that chemicals are managed in a sound manner.

Dr Were is a lecturer at University of Nairobi and an advisory council member of Lead Paint Alliance 


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