For more than 1,000 years, the health dangers of lead have been well documented. Lead is toxic to the gastrointestinal and central nervous systems; to the bones and the kidneys; to the brain and the heart. When absorbed through inhalation or consumption, lead can cause mental disability, coma, convulsions and death. The ancient Romans knew it, modern technology proves it, and yet thousands of people still die every year as a result of lead poisoning. Most of these fatalities are children living in low- or middle-income countries, and most become ill from exposure to lead-based paint.
One group working to end the phenomena of lead poisoning from paint is the Asian Lead Paint Elimination Project. The Project is funded in part by the European Union, and its major goal is to completely stop the production and sale of lead-based paint in the Southeast Asian countries where the product is most common: Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.
A recent report from the Asian Lead Paint Elimination Project demonstrated the problem of lead paint in that latter country, especially. Entitled “The National Report – Lead in India’s Enamel Household Paints,” this collection of research concluded that lead-heavy paints are still widely sold throughout India. Of the 250 oil-based paint cans purchased and analyzed by researchers, not one single paint’s lead content was low enough to qualify for international sale.
This Indian report also indicated that the average concentration of lead in enamel paint might be growing: in 2013, 90 percent of paints tested had lead content of more than 90 parts per million (ppm), whereas only 22 percent of paints tested in 2011 showed that same concentration of lead. Likewise, in 2011 the highest lead concentration detected by researchers was 34,700 ppm; in 2013, the highest concentration was more than quadruple that amount at 160,000 ppm.
Such high concentrations of lead in household paint are concerning, especially because any amount of lead presents a danger to humans. World health groups agree that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead exposure: all contact, with all concentrations, can be harmful to health.
For a number of reasons, children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Firstly, children are more likely than adults to put objects into their mouths, such as paint chips or toys decorated with lead-based paint. Lead can also make its way onto objects indirectly, in the form of dust from lead-painted walls, and then again into a child’s body when the tot puts that object into his mouth, or licks his fingers after touching lead dust.
Besides being more vulnerable to the consumption of lead, children are also more vulnerable to its effects. Because a child’s brain and body are growing rapidly, the damaging effects of lead can stunt brain growth, leading to behavioral problems, difficulty paying attention and mental retardation. Exposure to lead at a very young age can even cause gene re-expression. Lead is more readily absorbed into a child’s stomach than an adult’s, especially if that child is malnourished, leading to worse brain and body damage as well as gastrointestinal distress.
Of course, adults are not immune from the harms of lead. Exposure to lead can lead to kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults, as well as respiratory issues; especially if the lead is breathed into the lungs in the form of dust. Construction workers are at particular risk of inhaling lead in this form. In women, lead exposure at the time of pregnancy can damage the fetus, and because lead accumulates in the bones, a woman exposed to lead many years before becoming pregnant may still pass affect her baby while it is in utero. Both women and men exposed to lead may have trouble reproducing in the first place.
Reducing household use of lead paint is one of the best ways to protect children and adults from heavy lead exposure. Lead is added to paint to provide or enhance color, and to make paint dry more quickly. In most parts of the developed world lead paint is banned for sale or use, and since the 1980s a number of lead alternatives have been available to paint manufacturers. These alternatives are both cheap and easily produced, but in developing nations such as India, lead additives are still more appealing to many paint manufacturers.
In order to stop the use of lead-based paint, the Asian Lead Paint Elimination Project concluded its report on India with a number of recommendations: firstly, that the government should create national standards on lead in paint, as most developed countries have done. Once those national standards are in place, the Indian government could monitor paint companies and retailers, and review their compliance with lead paint standards; also offering the public a way to access paint that is known to be free of lead. According to the report, the government in India (as well as other nations still experiencing lead paint-related health problems) should also consider testing citizens’ blood in order to analyze which people have been most exposed to lead, and why. On the national level, campaigns should also be conducted to inform the public about the dangers of lead and lead-based paint.
The report also offered recommendations to paint companies themselves, advising that manufacturers should produce lead-free paint and post information for employees and customers about the dangers of lead. Amongst themselves, paint producers could also put lead-free logos onto paint cans, and become involved in third-party certification processes to maintain the safety of their paint.