Sunday, June 27, 2010

Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paints launched

Hemantha Withanage and Chamali Liyanage
Centre for Environmental Justice

Lead in paint is a major health problem to both children and the adult population. While eliminating lead in new paint is on the way, lead in legacy paint or old paint coatings in buildings remain a major problem. The World health Organization(WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) led “Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paints” was launched in Geneva, in May 2010 considering the gravity of lead in paint problem in the world.

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) committed itself to take actions to protect human health from exposure to lead. Paragraph 56 was on lead in gasoline and was implemented an unleaded gasoline was introduced by 2005. However, lead in paint remains a major issue. Paragraph 57 of the Plan of Implementation of the WSSD states:

“Phase out lead in lead-based paints and in other sources of human exposure, work to prevent, in particular, children's exposure to lead and strengthen monitoring and surveillance efforts and the treatment of lead poisoning.”

The International Conference on Chemicals Management at its second session held in Geneva, in May 2009 endorsed the establishment of a global partnership to promote the phase-out of the use of lead in paint as an important contribution to the implementation of paragraph 57 of the Plan of Implementation of the WSSD and to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.

According to the WHO and UNEP figures at least 143,000 people die every year due to lead contamination and 600,000 people suffer due to same. Since most countries now have introduced unleaded gasoline, the other major source for lead contamination is lead paint.

Lead paint standards

The paint manufacturers are fast moving towards unleaded paint. Now the standard used in the United States is 90 ppm for Enamel paint. China also use 90 ppm as their standards. Background levels in non-lead paints are between 40 ppm to 5 ppm. There are non lead ingredients now available. The World Health Organization and UNEP have already proposed to limit lead level to 90ppm.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is still far behind these standards. As part of the global call against lead in paint, International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) and Toxics Link, India together with ten national organizations carried out a research on Lead in paint in 2009. Centre for Environmental Justice/ Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, a member of the IPEN are the Sri Lankan collaborators to this research. It was found that out of 33 Sri Lankan paint samples tested from 4 different brands 19 have very high lead levels. Later we tested six samples from the same brands in the ITI, Sri Lanka and proved the high lead levels.

As a response to the call by the Paint Manufacturers Association that our tests were incomplete, we tested another 14 samples and found high lead level in another 10 samples. We have found lead exceeding the acceptable levels such as eg: 137325ppm, 133463ppm, 55237ppm etc. However, we understand that there are a number of unregulated small –time manufacturers who also engage in the business.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka does not have MANDATORY STANDARDS to date. This will remain a problem since the Consumer Affairs Authority is silent on this issue. However, as a response to the finding of the CEJ, the draft specifications (first Revision- SLS 539:2010 dated 2010-04-30) on enamel paint were made available for public comments last month. Draft standards for Toys and Accessories are now available for public comments until 25 June 2010. Both these standards will be voluntary standards. While the voluntary standards have a moderate value, it does not achieve the purpose of regulating the lead in paint.

Yet, the draft standards are far behind the international standards. The draft only proposed 600ppm standard for lead which is totally inadequate. This is the old standard for many countries. Therefore we strongly suggest that this specification should bring the lead level down to 90 ppm at least as the technology and alternative materials are readily available. According to experts this is achievable.

According to the draft specifications, only Lead and Chromium levels are mandatory and five other metals such as Antimony, Barium, Cadmium, Cobalt and Mercury are optional. Cadmium is a very toxic substance and sometimes used in the manufacture of pigments. Previous amendment No 4 to SLS 539:1981 approved on 2003-02-19 Specification for Enamel paint specifies limits for Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Lead, Mercury, Selenium and Thallium. It is hard to understand the reasons for putting some of them as optional and the complete removal of Arsenic, Selenium and Thallium from this new amendment. We believe that specifications for heavy metals should be made mandatory.

The indicated levels of chromium, antimony, barium, cadmium, cobalt and mercury appear to be way too high. As per our information, in the past, mercury was used in many water-based latex paints as a fungicide to prevent the growth of bacteria in the paint produced in United States. However, Mercury use in interior and exterior latex paint was banned in the United States in 1991. Therefore, we propose elimination of Mercury in both interior and exterior paint under this specification.

According to the Occupational Health Department, many paint workers are vulnerable to high lead contamination. They are subject to lead contamination during wall preparations and painting. According to the new draft the level of lead should be indicated on the label of the container. But it may contain other heavy metals, which are not mandatory, in high levels. This "marking"/ labeling requirement is inadequate There are precedents in other countries, such as United Kingdom, that they show all the levels in the label. Therefore we request that a requirement be included to display the levels of all heavy metals in the label with a statement "Complies with the maximum concentration of Lead, Chromium, Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Cadmium, Cobalt, Selenium, Thallium and Mercury as defined in XXX standard". This will give a warning to consumers when choosing the products and also it will promote manufacturers to avoid such toxic levels.

Paints and especially paint dust are harmful to people. Some developed countries carry instructions on how to prepare the walls and remove legacy paint. We believe that the paint container should display a warning on disturbing old lead paints for surface preparation that they may contaminate soil and interior dust which can result in significant exposures of workers, children, pregnant woman and building occupants. Exposure to lead dust can cause serious illnesses, such as brain damage, especially in children. Pregnant women should avoid exposure completely. There should be a warning to wear an approved respirator to control lead exposure and use of a vacuum and a wet mop in removing and cleaning the surface.

Most countries produce paint with no added lead. We also propose that although this specification suggests a higher limit to total lead, there should also be another specification which says “no added lead”. Since the countries are already going for 90 ppm lead limit and “no added lead” requirements, the Sri Lankan paint manufacturers will be at risk if they produce paint with 600ppm lead to the international market. Therefore, this specification needs to protect them from such risks.

Lead in paint is not only a health and environmental issue but also a social and environmental justice issue too. It is known that some paint manufacturers produce low lead paint for the international markets while producing high level lead paint for the local market. All people should join the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paints for the sake of your children and own health.

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