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A Toxics-Free Future


Lead, the poison in your paint, fuel and toys

28th March 2016

Lead is a toxic metal whose different compounds are added to paint as a pigment to give a specific colour. For example, lead (II) carbonate, known as white lead, makes the paint a white or cream colour and the use of lead tetroxide makes a bright red paint.
The heavy metal additive also decreases the amount of time that the paint takes to dry, makes the paint more durable and causes the paint to be more moisture resistant. Due to these properties, lead-based paint became the choice for home use and even in children’s toys.
Lead levels in paint are measured in parts per million (ppm). The greater the amount of lead in paint, the higher the ppm number.
However, lead is toxic and is known to be a potent blocker of receptors of glutamate, a neurotransmitter crucial for learning. It is also able to displace a series of other metals from doing their normal job in the body - most significantly, calcium, iron and zinc.
Exposure can cause numerous health problems including convulsions, affect the nervous system, brain, blood cells, and kidneys.
Lead displaces the zinc from an enzyme that is crucial for the biosynthesis of the iron-binding part of haemoglobin resulting in a shortage of oxygen in cells which in turn causes a myriad of problems.
Children most at risk
Due to the effects of weathering, paint on the exterior of houses finds its way into the soil around the house and is there after brought into the house us dust on shoes and clothes. Children are the most vulnerable because they play close to the ground often put most of their toys (and anything they play with) into their mouths.
This is very dangerous for children because the study showed that a typical six-year-old child ingests approximately 100 milligrams of dust and soil each day.
The Agenda survey warned that children face a high risk of mental disorders due to decorative paints underscored that majority of paints in Tanzania have high lead levels that could severely affect the health of children; "the health impacts of lead exposure on young children's brains are lifelong, irreversible and untreatable," says the report.
When toys, household furniture and other household articles are painted with lead paint, children may chew on them and directly ingest in the lead contaminated dried paint. Once the lead enters a child body through ingestion or inhalation or across the placenta, it has the potential to damage a number of biological systems particularly the central nervous system and the brain.
Infants and children are most the susceptible to lead poisoning and may suffer from physical and mental development, behaviour problems and even lower IQ levels.
Lead in Toys
Because it's bright, durable, flexible, fast-drying, and cheap, paint manufacturers mix in different lead compounds depending on the colour of the paint because it helps to enhance colours.
Lead is invisible to the naked eye and has no smell. Most children with lead poisoning do not look or act sick so you must ask your doctor to perform a blood lead test on your children. This is the only way to know if they are being lead poisoned.
Children often place toys and jewelry in their mouths and these items are sometimes swallowed.
Lead in Plastic
Lead softens the plastic and makes it more flexible so that it can go back to its original shape. It may also be used in plastic toys to stabilize molecules from heat. When the plastic is exposed to substances such as sunlight, air, and detergents the chemical bond between the lead and plastics breaks down and forms dust.
Lead in fuel
“Tetraethyl lead” was used in early model cars to help reduce engine knocking, boost octane ratings, and help with wear and tear on valve seats within the motor- Engine Performance Facts and Fixes.
After environmental hazards began to become overwhelmingly apparent, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) announced a scheduled phase out of lead content in gasoline.
On January 1, 1996, the US Clean Air Act completely banned the use of leaded fuel for any on road vehicle and imposed a hefty fine of USD10,000 for anyone found to possess leaded gasoline.
In 2003 Tanzania developed a leaded gas phase-out action plan as part of a larger initiative to ban the use of leaded gasoline in Sub Saharan Africa, as stated in the Dakar Declaration of 2001. In 2006, Tanzania banned the use of leaded gasoline and the Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS) moved to impose a total ban on the product by withdrawing its standard specification.
Tanzania’s unregulated paints
Tested for lead, 36 of 56 cans of paint were found to contain levels of lead that are safe for humans, especially children. The survey was conducted in December last year and included 11 local brands from Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Mwanza as well as several imports.
The paints were analysed by an accredited laboratory in the US for their total lead content and was conducted by the environmental advocacy group Agenda. It revealed that these paints had lead levels well above the globally accepted standard of 90 ppm.
According to Agenda, Tanzania does not have a specific policy or regulation for the content of lead in decorative paints.
Buildings painted with lead paint either on the interior or exterior have higher concentrations of lead in the dust around those buildings due to weathering.
Global alliance to eliminate lead in paint
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organisation jointly serve as the secretariat of the voluntary Global alliance to eliminate lead in paint. The goal of the alliance is to prevent childhood exposure to lead via paints and minimize occupational exposure to lead in paint by phasing out the manufacture and sale of paints containing lead.
It notes that, while a small number of countries have national laws and programmes on lead in paint, these products remain unregulated in most countries.
The Global Alliance agrees that the definition of lead paint is any paint (to include varnish, lacquer, stain, enamel, glaze, primer or coating) that without added lead compounds has a lead concentration less than 90 ppm (parts per million).
Tanzania joins Global Alliance
Tanzania and 15 other African countries joined the rest of the world in an agreement to phase-out the use of lead in paint by 2020.
The agreement was reached late last year in Addis Ababa at a meeting jointly organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and IPEN, a global network of NGOs working against use of unregulated toxic substances.
The participants agreed that efforts are needed in each country to phase out lead paint, to set a total lead content limit of 90ppm and to harmonize the standard within the sub-region.
Subsequently, an East African standard applicable to the six East African countries is being developed to limit the lead content in decorative paint. Similar initiatives exist in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
News reports at the time said the delegates expressed their hope that their cooperation with the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint would follow the successful example of UNEP Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, which has resulted in phasing out of lead in gasoline in most of the world's countries.
The Summit heard that lead exposure causes huge economic loss to the annual tune of 135 billion dollars which is equivalent to 4 per cent of Sudan’s GDP.
The meeting also pointed out that only 59 countries in the world have a legal limit on lead in paint highlighting the need for countries to join the global efforts of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint to introduce a legal limit on lead in paint in all countries worldwide by 2020.
A Toolkit for Establishing Laws to Control the Use of Lead in Paint was also introduced at the Summit and is available on UNEP's website.
The toolkit provides information on health and environmental impacts, alternative paints, challenges for small and medium sized enterprises, etc. It also includes case studies from countries where legal limits were successfully introduced, such as Uruguay and the Philippines.
World Health Organisation lists lead exposure as one of the top ten environmental health threats globally. No level of lead exposure is safe for people, and children are especially vulnerable.