An international convention limiting the use of white lead was adopted by the General Conference of the International Labour Organisation and ratified by 63 countries as early as 1921. Many highly industrial countries enacted laws, regulations or mandatory standards to protect the health of their people in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
These laws generally prohibit the manufacture, import, sale or use of lead paint for interiors or exteriors of homes, schools and other child-occupied facilities. The standard adopted by the United States imposes an upper limit of 90 ppm on total lead (dry weight) for household paints and many other paint categories. Other countries have adopted mandatory limits in the range of 90 to 1,000 ppm total lead (dry weight).
Analytical data from paint studies show that in countries where no national law, binding regulation, or other legal instrument specifically forbids it, some or most of the brands of enamel decorative paints for sale on the national market contain high levels of lead. This suggests that national laws, binding regulations, or other legal instruments are a key tool for controlling the lead content of paints.
Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (GAELP)
At the second session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM), held in 2009, several chemical issues were identified by consensus to be international priority issues of concern. One of these was lead in paints, and there was a decision to establish it as an international emerging policy issue. In response to the ICCM decision, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly initiated a global partnership to eliminate the use of lead compounds in paints in order to protect public health and the environment. This partnership is called the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (GAELP). GAELP’s broad objective is to phase out the manufacture and sale of paints containing lead and eventually to eliminate the risks from such paint.
National Frameworks for the Elimination of Lead Paint
Governments can address the problem of lead in paint by establishing a legal framework to control the manufacture, import, sale and use of lead decorative paints and other paints likely to contribute to human lead exposure. Legal frameworks used for controlling lead paints vary from country to country.
Virtually all highly industrial countries have laws or regulations that have been in force since the 1980’s or before to control the lead content of decorative paints.
In 2008, in response to growing concerns about childhood lead exposure and new evidence of low dose impacts, a law was passed by the United States that revised the previous 600 ppm maximum limit for lead in decorative paints and established 90 ppm as the new limit. This limit applies to paint and other similar surface coatings used on toys, other articles intended for use by children, and certain items of furniture. The law applies to paints used in residences, schools, hospitals, parks, playgrounds, and public buildings or other areas where consumers will have direct access to the painted surface. Canada has since set a similar limit, and in 2009 the European Union placed new, very strict controls on the production and use of lead pigments. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay, recent decrees with the force of law have established a maximum allowable lead concentration in enamel decorative paints of 600 ppm and prohibit the production and import of paints with a lead concentration above this limit. Sri Lanka has established 90 ppm lead as the maximum limit for emulsion paints and paints for use on children’s toys.
In some countries, the Environment Ministry or the Health Ministry may have the authority to issue a regulation, a decree or a control order that controls the lead content of paints. A number of countries, as part of their national Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) implementation programs, are attempting to strengthen their national capabilities for sound chemicals management, including the promotion and adoption of enabling laws and the establishment of inter-ministerial committees to coordinate these national efforts. In some other countries, national standards agencies have the power, under certain conditions, to establish legally binding national standards, such as the maximum permissible lead content of paint.
Monitoring and Compliance
While the establishment of a national law, regulation, decree or binding standard to control the lead content of paint is very important, it is not, by itself, enough. Any such instrument must also include or establish an effective regime for monitoring compliance and for enforcement.
The elimination of lead paint may also be aided by voluntary schemes such as third-party paint certification and labeling programs. Under such programs, participating paint companies agree that they will not add lead compounds to their paints and only market products with lead levels below a specified limit (for example, 90 ppm). Participating companies also agree to place a certification label on their paints indicating that the paint does not contain added lead compounds.
Consumer groups and others then work cooperatively with participating companies to encourage consumers to look for the label when selecting paints. Third party monitors have the paints analyzed on a regular basis to ensure compliance.
Third-party certification of paints would also safeguard against double standards from paint companies selling unleaded paints where the national law requires it and leaded paints where no regulations exists, as has been shown in a study from South Asia.