A UC Department of Environmental Health researcher is at the
forefront of efforts to introduce a global ban on the addition of lead to
household decorative paints.
Scott Clark, PhD, professor emeritus in the department’s division
of environmental and occupational hygiene, has been involved in the past year
with managing a nine-country new paint sampling project for the United Nations
Environmental Program and the World Health Organization (WHO) through IPEN, an
international network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to
establish and implement safe chemicals policies.
Although lead content in paint has been restricted in the
United States since 1978, Clark’s research has shown that consumer paints
containing dangerous levels of lead are still available in major countries on
three continents. In an earlier (2006) report, Clark and his colleagues
documented high levels of lead in three Asian countries and called for
worldwide efforts to stop its use. The latest report marks a major effort to achieve
Clark and Jack Weinberg, IPEN’s senior policy advisor,
oversaw and prepared a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study analyzing
enamel decorative paints from nine countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile,
Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia and Uruguay. The study was
released Oct. 22 in Nairobi, Kenya, timed to coincide with the first International
Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action.
According to the report, pregnant mothers and young children
in the developing world are still exposed to "astonishingly high and dangerous
levels of lead” through unsafe paints.
Clark says current efforts show promise of being able to
result in most countries and paint companies switching to use of non-lead
compounds in producing paints. Still, he says, that won’t solve the problem of
leaded paints that have already been used.
"Thirty-five years after the United States banned the use of
leaded paints, we still have over 20 million housing units with lead-based
paint hazards,” he points out. "Virtually nothing is known about the extent of
the ‘legacy lead paints’ in the countries in this study and in other countries,
including those where lead paint testing has occurred and those in which it has
"Stopping the use of lead in new paints is a very important
public health challenge, but it is only the first—and very likely the
easiest—part of solving the problems from use of lead in paints.”
The research was organized by the Global Alliance to
Eliminate Lead Paint, a group co-led by UNEP and the World Health Organization.
A total of 234 cans of enamel decorative paint were
purchased and tested at the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory at the
University of Wisconsin Madison, with the assistance of IPEN.
Most of the paints tested would not meet regulatory
standards established in most industrialized countries, such as the 90 parts
per million (ppm) limit in the United States and Canada. Generally, white
paints had the lowest lead content, while red, green and yellow paints had the highest
The report found that few nations have established
regulatory frameworks, but those that have exhibit lower lead paint levels.
According to the study, lead in paint is a problem because
painted surfaces deteriorate with time and disturbance, releasing the lead into
household dust and soil outside. Very high exposures to lead-contaminated dust
can occur when surfaces previously painted with lead paints are prepared for
repainting without taking the precautions needed to control the lead dust. Children
ingest lead from dusts and soils during normal hand to mouth behavior.
Damage to children’s intelligence and mental development
occurs, the study said, even when there are no obvious or clinical signs of
lead poisoning, decreasing their performance in school and lifelong
productivity at work.
An estimated 143,000 deaths a year result from lead
poisoning, according to WHO data; lead paint is a major contributor to this
Worldwide, 30 countries have phased out the use of lead
paint. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint has set a target of 70
countries by 2015.