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A Toxics-Free Future


Lead poisoning risk as paint firms disregard limit

Report shows paints being sold in Kenya in 2017 had dangerously high amounts of lead

By Pauline Kairu

If your house or building has a coat of paint on it, then you might want to pay a little more attention to this story.

Despite bans around the globe, most countries — Kenya included — still have paint manufactured with huge amounts of lead. Lead exposure has devastating human health effects especially for children.

Yet, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as of September 30, only 73 countries had legally binding controls over lead paint. Kenya is one of these 73 countries that limit the production, import and sale of lead paints. Kenya’s standards on paint limit lead content to 90ppm (90 parts per million).

But these standards remain on paper.

A report released on samples of paints being sold in Kenya in 2017, revealed that at least 71 per cent of the paints contained dangerously high amounts of lead. Levels as high as 16 per cent of the paint, and almost 18,000 times the allowed limit, were found.

The inspections done by a watchdog, Centre for Environment Justice and Development (Cejad), and IPEN — a global coalition of NGOs working towards elimination of persistent organic pollutants, found that of the 51 sampled paints, more than 69 per cent contained lead levels greater than is allowed.

Of the sampled ones, over half (at least 55 per cent) contained close to seven times more (over 600 ppm) than the allowable amounts of lead, while 33 per cent of the paints contained 111 more times than what the Kenyan law allows. Such paints are often sold for household use without any warnings.

One paint that boldly advertised itself as being ‘lead free’ on the container, was actually found to have the highest levels of the deadly chemical with 16,0000 ppm. It was a yellow paint produced for home use.

An enquiry sent to the Kenya Bureau of Standards by this publication on October 24, seeking to find out whether it had carried out any recent surveillance on the paints being sold and the lead levels found therein, remained unanswered by the time of going to press.

Behavioral Problems

Lead compounds are preferred by manufacturers of decorative and industrial paints and other coatings because they enhance colour, make hues brighter and reduce corrosion on metal surfaces.

On October 20 to 26, during the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action, WHO acknowledged that many countries still did not prohibit the use of lead paint in homes and schools, leading to an increased risk of exposure, particularly in children.

WHO recognises lead paint as a major source of “lead-caused mental retardation”, a disease it identifies as one of the top 10 ailments whose health burden among children was due to modifiable environmental factors.

Even low levels of lead exposure might damage a child’s developing brain, resulting in lower IQ and learning disabilities.

Lead can also cause and increase behavioural problems, and impair reproductive function. “We want governments, manufacturers of paint, (and others) to do everything possible to eliminate lead in paint, and to promote actions to address this devastating human health effects of lead exposure, said Dr Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health at WHO.

In Kenya, the cumulative national economic loss due to childhood lead exposure and brain damage in children as a result of lead exposure is estimated at Sh5.3 trillion.