Lead-laden paint still widely sold around the world

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Even as the US lowers the lead levels allowed in paint dramatically, paint with dangerously high lead levels is still being sold for household use worldwide, putting hundreds of millions of young children at risk of permanent brain damage, research out this month in the journal Environmental Research shows.

The sale of new paint containing more than 600 parts per million (ppm) of lead has been banned since 1978 in the US, which just this month dropped the permissible lead level in new paint to 90 ppm. While China, Singapore, and South Africa recently introduced limits on the lead content of household paints (and India has instituted a voluntary standard), there’s strong evidence that high lead paint is still being sold in these and other countries, and used to paint homes, schools, toys and even playgrounds.

Dr. C. Scott Clark of the University of Cincinnati and his colleagues tested samples of 373 different enamel paints being sold for household use, with at least 10 samples for each country. They found that the percentage of samples with lead levels at 600 ppm or above ranged from 32.8% for China and 36.6% for Singapore to nearly 90% for Thailand and 96% for Nigeria. The lowest average lead content ranged from 6,988 ppm for Singapore, where the researchers tested 41 samples, to 31,960 ppm for 10 samples tested from Ecuador.

And children around the world are at risk of lead poisoning from battery recycling operations, smelting plants, and other sources, including lead paint, the authors note.

Historically, lead was used to prevent paint from cracking with changes in temperature, Clark told Reuters Health. But alternative, safe additives have long been available, he added.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, Clark said. In many of the 12 countries where Clark and his team conducted their research, there were low-lead paints available at a cost comparable to that of the high-lead products. “It’s clear that the situation can be different,” he said.

In May of this year, a United Nations panel called for the formation of a worldwide partnership to ban the use of lead in paint, Clark said. “We’re hoping that this will at least encourage countries to change their laws and that the public will become aware that they should be concerned about it,” he added.

Even if such a ban is achieved, Clark noted, children are still at risk of being poisoned by dust from old, deteriorating lead paint. Nevertheless, he added, addressing lead paint poisoning is a relatively surmountable public health problem, compared to many others out there.

SOURCE: Environmental Research, online August 4 , 2009.