Scott Clark, PhD, professor emeritus in the department’s division of environmental and occupational hygiene, has been involved in the past year with managing a nine-country new paint sampling project for the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Health Organization (WHO) through IPEN, an international network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to establish and implement safe chemicals policies.
Although lead content in paint has been restricted in the United States since 1978, Clark’s research has shown that consumer paints containing dangerous levels of lead are still available in major countries on three continents. In an earlier (2006) report, Clark and his colleagues documented high levels of lead in three Asian countries and called for worldwide efforts to stop its use. The latest report marks a major effort to achieve that goal.
Clark and Jack Weinberg, IPEN’s senior policy advisor, oversaw and prepared a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study analyzing enamel decorative paints from nine countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia and Uruguay. The study was released Oct. 22 in Nairobi, Kenya, timed to coincide with the first International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action.
According to the report, pregnant mothers and young children in the developing world are still exposed to “astonishingly high and dangerous levels of lead” through unsafe paints.
Clark says current efforts show promise of being able to result in most countries and paint companies switching to use of non-lead compounds in producing paints. Still, he says, that won’t solve the problem of leaded paints that have already been used.
“Thirty-five years after the United States banned the use of leaded paints, we still have over 20 million housing units with lead-based paint hazards,” he points out. “Virtually nothing is known about the extent of the ‘legacy lead paints’ in the countries in this study and in other countries, including those where lead paint testing has occurred and those in which it has not.
“Stopping the use of lead in new paints is a very important public health challenge, but it is only the first—and very likely the easiest—part of solving the problems from use of lead in paints.”
The research was organized by the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, a group co-led by UNEP and the World Health Organization.
A total of 234 cans of enamel decorative paint were purchased and tested at the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Madison, with the assistance of IPEN.
Most of the paints tested would not meet regulatory standards established in most industrialized countries, such as the 90 parts per million (ppm) limit in the United States and Canada. Generally, white paints had the lowest lead content, while red, green and yellow paints had the highest lead levels.
The report found that few nations have established regulatory frameworks, but those that have exhibit lower lead paint levels.
According to the study, lead in paint is a problem because painted surfaces deteriorate with time and disturbance, releasing the lead into household dust and soil outside. Very high exposures to lead-contaminated dust can occur when surfaces previously painted with lead paints are prepared for repainting without taking the precautions needed to control the lead dust. Children ingest lead from dusts and soils during normal hand to mouth behavior.
Damage to children’s intelligence and mental development occurs, the study said, even when there are no obvious or clinical signs of lead poisoning, decreasing their performance in school and lifelong productivity at work.
An estimated 143,000 deaths a year result from lead poisoning, according to WHO data; lead paint is a major contributor to this death toll.
Worldwide, 30 countries have phased out the use of lead paint. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint has set a target of 70 countries by 2015.
Media Contact: Keith Herrell, 513-558-4559