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A Toxics-Free Future


Coatings World: Central Asia Begins to Address Coatings Safety Issues

Vladislav Vorotnikov, Russia Correspondent
January 2020

The situation with coating safety in Central Asian countries is alarming, with no real efforts being taken to properly address it, local environmentalists admitted during the IPEN Regional workshop on lead pollution in the countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia.

Lead in coatings is attracting more and more attention in the region. In Georgia, 41 percent of children had been found having blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) – the level considered relatively safe for health, and among them, 16 percent of children had blood lead levels of greater than or equal to 10 µg/dL, a nationally representative study UNICEF in Georgia showed.

In some particular regions, samples taken from 85 percent children showed excessive lead content. The results were discouraging, so the national government made a commitment “to undertake efforts to develop short-term and long-term response strategies and actions.” Although, the research did not name the main sources of lead that made its way to the children blood, it was rather clear that coatings would be among them.

This is believed to be a part of a big problem in Central Asia and some countries of Caucasus as it is thought these coatings might present a dangerous health risk.

Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Tajikistan, a small country between China and Afghanistan, there is virtually no control over the quality of coatings on the market, research conducted by the Tajikistan civil initiatives support fund showed. No companies selling coatings are able to show certificate of origin on the coatings, and for customers there is no possibility to know what components it may contain, said Muazama Burkhanova, chairman of the fund.

Those statements are confirmed by independent research. In 2016, a group of ecological organizations in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia conducted a large-scale study on the lead content in coatings in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It turned out that 49 percent of collected samples of various coatings available on the local markets had a lead content above 600 ppm, with 13 percent having a lead content above 5,000 ppm and six percent, above 10,000 ppm.

Deadly imports

There is a wide palette of coatings available on the markets of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but the market is primarily dominated by noname brands. There is also a presence of the notorious garage coatings, which is a term referred to coatings manufactured illegally at small workshops located right inside conventional garages.

These three countries of the region are not participating in the free trade zone agreements and with the limited or no domestic production have a short list of options of how to treat import suppliers, including those coming from Turkey, China, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Finland and a broad range of other countries.

Almost all of the imported coatings carry no information about the components on the label. Research conducted on the coatings in Tajikistan with the tests were ran in the Forensic Analytical Laboratories in the U.S. showed that 48 out of 51 samples had excessive lead content, with in some cases lead accounted for an unprecedented 20 percent of coatings.

The coatings with the highest lead content were supplied by Iran manufacturers Alvan и Mashhad Kraska, while the coatings with the lowest lead content came from Sri Lanka, Brazil and South Africa. This is believed to be a part of a big problem as in the Central Asia and some countries of Caucasus it is hard to make any move against the poor-quality coatings.

No real actions have been taken so far, because the authorities are afraid to leave their domestic markets without coatings at all. For example, Tajikistan has rather high dependence on lead coatings, and with any prohibition of using lead in coatings, there must be a guarantee that coatings import would not stop to Tajikistan completely, said Burkhanova.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are on the horns of a dilemma, as introducing any restrictions aimed to make coatings more environmental-friendly would risk to sharply increase prices on the market, while not doing anything they jeopardize the health of consumers and risk facing increasing pressure from opposition and environmentalists.

The authorities are well-aware of the negative impact of lead on the health of the population, but so far no large-scale efforts on the national level have been initiated to deal with that problem, commented Abduhakim Sarimsakov, Chief Toxicologist of the Ministry of Health of Uzbekistan. There are several coatings producers in Uzbekistan, manufacturing coatings containing lead, plus there is import of cheap coatings from Turkey, South Korea and China, Sarimsakov added.

In Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, high lead levels in coatings are only the tip of the iceberg. Technically, the region becomes one of the world’s market, where the price is the only factor that matters and where it comes to non-food products nobody cares about safety, a source in the local coatings industry who wished to not be named said. There is broad range of substances, for example formaldehyde and chrome that raises strong concerns by the environmentalist, and the problem that no politician wants to affect prices by introducing some stricter standards, so there are no major changes on the horizon, he added.

The problem of cheap and poor quality coatings in Central Asia, especially in some particular states is believed to have some economy grounds, as this region is amongst the poorest in Eurasia, where the average monthly salary in Tajikistan is $140, in Turkmenistan – $226, in Uzbekistan – $218, so most part of the local population in fact have no choice, but to opt for the cheapest possible coatings.

EEU Mulling Legal Changes

There is a movement among some environmentalists and politicians in the region to limit the maximum allowable lead content in coatings to 90 ppm. This would make a drastic decline, since in the Eurasia Union, a trade block of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, the allowable rate is currently set at 15 percent from the total coatings content, which is equal to 150,000 ppm, said Kanagat Dussambayev, spokesman of the Department of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industry of the Kazakh Industry Ministry.

In Russia, there is a federal law ‘On Safety of Coatings’ that allows production and further use of coatings with the lead content up to 5,000 pmm, according to Bellona.

But even those standards often mean nothing, since companies selling coatings on the market commonly have no fiscal documents that could allow tracing where the coatings were manufactured, according to Dussambayev. There is also a smuggling problem, as there are customs checks of coatings on the border with the exception of those supplied into the country by rail. 

This is a problem for the Asian part of the Eurasia Union, specifically for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, since in Russia and Belarus control over the coatings quality is much stricter.

The EEU is currently working on a new technical regulation ‘On Safety of Coating Products’ that may turn the tables for the coatings market. Gennady Averyanov, director of Russia’s Coatings Producers Association Centrlak said that the technical regulation prohibits the use of coatings with lead content not only indoors, but also in all public utilities, like school, kindergarteners and so on.

The draft technical regulation takes into account the world’s best practices and requirements regarding the safety of coatings, Averyanov said. The requirements of that regulation are similar to those in the U.S., European Union (EU) and Asia-Pacific region, he added. As of early December the regulation was still not adopted and so far there is no clarity when this could happen.