Africa must act resolutely against harmful paints

Thursday, November 3rd, 2022 00:00 | By

The majority of African countries are yet to outlaw paints containing heavy metal lead despite their documented negative health and economic impacts, and the risks of exposure that many people face from the products.

We can no longer brush aside the pressing need to keep unsafe paints out of homes, schools and work places. We can do this through developing and enforcing mandates against lead paints and enhancing public and industry awareness about their dangers.

Information compiled from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other credible sources indicates that as of June 30, less than a quarter of Africa’s 54 countries had laws or standards restricting the manufacture, importation and sale of paints containing toxic lead compounds.

By comparison, highly industrialised countries phased out lead paints in the 1970s and 80s, saving millions of people from devastating exposure to lead pollution.

Most African countries missed the 2020 target to legislate against lead paints as advocated by the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paints. The alliance brings together governments, industry, civil society and other actors, and is coordinated by UNEP and WHO.

It’s encouraging that a number of countries are now at various stages of developing or revising their laws to disallow paints with lead exceeding 90 parts per million (ppm) in line with global standards.

However, in parts of Africa with legal frameworks against lead paints such as Kenya, the will and capacity to enforce them is not robust, especially in the informal paint sector where the use of lead additives is still rampant.

We are paying a huge price amid the silent and avoidable crisis of lead pollution from paints. The estimated annual economic cost of childhood lead exposure alone in Africa is $134.7 billion, equivalent to four per cent of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product. This is based on decreased intelligence and lost lifetime economic productivity.

Ingesting or inhaling lead dust from paints and other sources can irreversibly impede mental development of children. It can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and malformations in pregnant women. It is also linked to anaemia, kidney damage, hypertension and reproductive impairments.

While there are multiple sources of lead exposure, the most widespread in Africa tends to be paints containing lead compounds. Eliminating them would, therefore, have significant health and economic benefits.

Tests conducted by NGO IPEN on solvent-based decorative household paints in a dozen African countries found more than half (55 per cent) of the nearly 600 paint cans sampled had lead content exceeding the recommended maximum of 90 ppm. Some were as high as 10,000 ppm. This demonstrates the gravity and urgency of the challenge.

Transitioning from lead additives in paints does not imperil the bottom line of paint manufacturers. Non-toxic and affordable alternatives are easily available. Some paint manufacturers have successfully switched to safe products, but others in the formal and informal sectors may need technical support to do so.

Lead compounds are usually added to oil-based decorative and industrial paints and related products to enhance brightness, reduce corrosion on metal surfaces or shorten drying time. After application, the paint may chip off or get disturbed during building renovations thus contaminating the air and soils. Children may also swallow lead if they chew toys with lead paint.

Despite the high lead exposure risks from paints, awareness is limited. Robust public education campaigns should accompany initiatives to develop and enforce legal regimes to cut new lead paint use and to safely manage surfaces and objects already covered with lead paints.

Advocates against leaded paints are hoping to replicate the successful campaign that phased out leaded petrol. Twenty years after the launch of the campaign led by UNEP, the world officially bid farewell to leaded petrol in July last year.

It’s time policy makers across Africa act decisively against lead pollution from paints and other sources. Inaction is inexcusable. There is no time to lose. We owe it to the current and future generations.

— The writer is a Sustainable Development Advocate  — [email protected]

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