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A Toxics-Free Future

IPEN guest piece on Stanford University's MAHB blog: Protect Children’s Health, Eliminate Lead Paint

Stanford University's Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere (MAHB) blog: Protect Children’s Health, Eliminate Lead Paint

The man, an African executive sitting in front of me, is crying. He had been aware, in a general way, that lead is a health hazard, however he did not know until this moment two years ago that the paints his company has been manufacturing and distributing for the past 30 years have most likely harmed children. He has just learned from our meeting that there are no safe levels of lead exposure for children and that harm from childhood lead exposure is irreversible, untreatable and potentially severe. Today his paint manufacturing company has almost completed the process of replacing leaded raw materials with safe alternatives and he is strongly encouraging others to do the same.

This moment of education, consciousness and action to eliminate lead paint is occurring all over the world, catalyzed through key activities by IPEN´s Global Lead Paint Elimination Campaign. National studies of lead in paint sold for home use is carried out by local NGOs around the world in collaboration with IPEN´s international team. They produce a scientific report, publicly release the findings of lead levels in paint sold in their countries, and conduct outreach activities to policy makers and paint manufacturers.  In response, consumers start demanding safe paint, manufacturers reformulate their paints and policy makers receive the support need to enact policies to ban lead paint in their country.

Lead Paint, A Global Health Hazard

The devastating effects of lead in paint are increasingly clear. Studies in the US, where use of lead in paint was common until its ban in 1978, show that exposure to even very low levels of lead during fetal development and early childhood leads to irreversible lifelong effects. Lead interferes with brain development and can results in a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral problems. Effects such as lower IQ scores and poorer school performance can be directly coupled to a child´s blood lead level, and indirect effects such as attention problems, impulsivity, hyperactivity and increased aggressive behavior have all clearly been shown to be caused by childhood lead exposure. Public health studies have also linked lead exposure to an overall increase in violent crime.

The lifelong effects also will impact the child´s potential for future lifetime earnings, leading to a negative impact on the economic growth of the whole country. A recent study by Attina and Trasande estimated a total cumulative cost burden related to lead exposure of $977 billion international dollars per year in low- and middle-income countries. This calculation does not include other considerable economic burdens to societies such as costs associated with care for children with special needs, increased pressure on the judicial systems from people whose criminal behaviors are rooted in childhood lead exposure, as well as the monumental costs of safely removing lead paint already in homes, schools and other places where children spend their time.

Paints contain high levels of lead when the paint manufacturers intentionally add leaded compounds to the paint as pigments, drying agents, or anti-corrosives. The lead contained in the paint releases as the paint ages, weathers, and deteriorates. Lead released from paint ends up in household dust, and children become exposed through normal hand-to-mouth behavior.

Lead in paint is also a serious occupational exposure hazard. The workers producing the paint, the painter applying the paint and the builder renovating the house painted with lead paint will all be exposed to high levels of lead unless extreme care is taken.

The good news is that safe, cost-effective alternatives to lead in paint are available in all countries, and the cost of lead replacements are minor.

International Research Collaboration

In 2007 almost a million toys produced by a contractor in China for one of the world´s largest toy companies were shown to be coated with lead paint and recalled. NGOs in IPEN´s network, alert to the problem of hazardous materials in developing and transition countries, asked an obvious question: If products exported to highly regulated markets like the US contained lead paint, what would the situation be on their national markets where regulatory controls on chemicals were weak, poorly enforced and often even completely lacking?

Toxics Link, an Indian NGO and IPEN Participating Organization, organized a study of lead paint in the Indian market in 2007. The results were shocking. In their report, A Brush with Toxics, they showed that 26 out of 31 solvent-based paints contained high lead levels and would be illegal in any developed country. Lead levels reached 14 percent of the dry weight of the paint – approximately 1500 times higher than the US regulatory limit.

IPEN followed up with a larger study in 2008, showing that paint with very high levels of lead was widely available in countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In some cases, the extreme lead concentrations were up to 50 percent of the dry weight of the paint. Since then, IPEN NGOs have conducted studies and provided data on lead in paint from 55 countries. They all came to the same conclusion; if lead paint is not banned in a country, it will be widely available on the market.

Concerted Global Action

IPEN’s research put the problem of lead back on the global agenda. In 2009, IPEN proposed global elimination of lead paint under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) – an international agreement to reform chemical production and use to protect human health and the environment. Developed countries could not believe lead paint was still being used, but joined more than 100 countries in a  unanimous decision to establish the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint.

Hosted by WHO and UN Environment and currently chaired by the US EPA, the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint engages policy makers, industry stakeholders and civil society to work together to eliminate lead paint in their countries.

The success of this model is easy to verify. In almost 20 countries where NGOs have worked with their governments and other national stakeholders, regulatory controls on lead in paint are today enacted or are in process. At the same time, repeated paint studies in Africa and Asia, are showing declining lead levels within 2-3 years of release of the first national paint report.

Use of household paint is still limited in many developing countries, but the market is rapidly expanding. For example, it has been estimated that the Philippines paint market will grow by five to ten percent every year. It is therefore of utmost importance to act now to eliminate lead paint globally and prevent these already struggling countries and communities from facing yet another burden.

IPEN´s goal is to have effective bans on lead paint in every country by 2022. More about lead exposure in the US and ways to prevent it can be found at the CDC and IPEN´s website contains more information about our global lead paint elimination campaign.


Sara Brosché, PhD is the Global Campaign Manager for the IPEN Lead Paint Elimination Campaign. IPEN is a network of public interest non-governmental organizations working in more than 100 countries to reduce and eliminate the harm to human health and the environment from toxic chemicals. You can learn more at