28 Mar 2013: Report

Long Outlawed in the West,
Lead Paint Sold in Poor Nations

A new study finds that household lead paint — banned for years in the U.S. and Europe because of its health effects on children — is commonly sold in the African nation of Cameroon. Is lead paint the latest case of Western companies selling unsafe products in developing countries?

by rebecca kessler

For years now, Perry Gottesfeld has been globetrotting in search of lead paints. These have been banned for decades from U.S. and European buildings because they poison children as they deteriorate. But as Gottesfeld, executive director of the U.S.-based NGO Occupational Knowledge International, and others have been showing, there’s still plenty of lead paint for sale in developing nations.

Two years ago Gottesfeld was in Cameroon, where he and collaborators at a local NGO now report they had found high levels of lead in numerous enamel house paints for sale throughout the African nation — a dozen with so much lead in them they exceeded the U.S. standard by 300 times or more. Only a few listed any ingredients on the label, and none had any warning language to alert consumers of the danger. The lead paints they found came from 12 manufacturers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates.

Lead paint Cameroon

Occupational Knowledge International
A study found 64 percent of paints purchased in Cameroon had lead concentrations well above U.S. standards.
Gottesfeld and two Cameroonian colleagues visited the largest manufacturers in Cameroon, trying to convince them to reformulate their paints to eliminate the lead. They headed to the country’s biggest paint manufacturer, Seigneurie, which made one paint that they say topped their charts with a lead content of half its weight, 5,500 times the U.S. standard. Arriving at the factory, Gottesfeld says he was shocked to see a big sign on the door bearing the corporate logo of PPG, the world’s second-largest paint company with headquarters in Pittsburgh. This was no backwater operation. Seigneurie, it turned out, was PPG’s French subsidiary, with outposts in a dozen developing nations.

In the U.S., which has a contentious history of lawsuits against residential-paint manufacturers over their past use of lead, the dangers of lead paint are no secret. “If anybody should be aware of it, it would be a U.S. company, given the liabilities that they incur at home,” says Gottesfeld. “To comply with a law at home and ignore it internationally is a clear case of double standards.”

Gottesfeld and his colleagues this month published a study of Cameroonian paints in the online version of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. The study showed that of 61 mainly enamel paints purchased at Cameroonian retail stores, 64 percent had lead concentrations well above the U.S. standard for residential paints of 90 parts per million (ppm). Nine out of 22 Seigneurie paints tested had significant lead concentrations.

The study raised the specter of lead paint being the latest in a series of products that have been banned in the U.S. and Europe but have continued to be sold in developing countries by U.S. or European companies. In recent decades, those products have included toxic pesticides, unsafe pharmaceuticals, and goods containing asbestos.

Gottesfeld says that after some discussion, PPG told him in early 2012 that it had stopped using lead in its Cameroonian decorative paints. But when
A 2009 study found lead concentration in paints highest in Ecuador – 355 times the U.S. limit.
he alerted the company in December that his partners were about to begin testing in Ivory Coast, he says, it seemed like they’d have to start the negotiations over on a country-by-country basis. Then, late last month, says Gottesfeld, PPG emailed him that it would stop making lead paint for consumer use worldwide. In recent testing, Seigneurie decorative paints in Ivory Coast came back virtually lead free, according to the Ivorian NGO that organized the testing.

Jeremy Neuhart, a PPG spokesperson, told Yale Environment 360 via email that the company has not confirmed the findings in Gottesfeld’s study, but that “PPG’s architectural paint and decorative coatings marketed to consumers around the world meet” the U.S. standard. He added that Seigneurie consumer products in Cameroon include labels with that information, and that while Cameroon does not regulate lead in paints, PPG representatives have met with government officials to offer support for establishing an industry standard.

Gottesfeld says PPG’s recent actions show good progress. But he notes that the company’s labeling remains insufficient to let consumers in developing nations readily tell the new lead-free cans from old ones still on the shelf.

Lead is added to paint as a pigment or a drying agent. As the paint ages, lead in chips and dust contaminates living spaces and is easily ingested by small children. Even low levels of exposure can torpedo kids’ IQ, motor skills, and other important neurological functions, and have been linked to poor academic performance, behavioral problems, and criminal activity. European nations began banning leaded indoor paint early in the 20th century, and the U.S. followed suit in 1978 after decades of opposition from the paint industry. However, lead remains legal in the U.S. in paints for automotive, industrial, and various other applications.

Yet lead paint continues to haunt American children, despite huge cleanup efforts and public-education campaigns. Of the nation’s nearly 100 million housing units, a quarter have significant lead-paint hazards, according to a 2002 study, the latest data available. About half a million children under age five have elevated blood lead levels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and scientists say lead paint is the primary cause.

With all the attention the issue has received in the U.S., experts say they assumed the paint industry had simply abandoned lead globally. But over the last decade reports that lead-based paints were alive and well abroad began trickling in. In 2007, news that millions of Chinese toys coated in lead paint were being illegally imported to the U.S. and EU highlighted the issue — a problem that persists.

Those reports prompted Gottesfeld and others to begin documenting just how widespread lead-based decorative paints are in the developing world. For instance, a 2009 study led by Scott Clark of the University of Cincinnati looked at household paints for sale in 12 countries and found that the average concentration of lead ranged from nearly 7,000 ppm
There is other evidence of top multinational corporations selling lead-based paints abroad.
in Singapore to nearly 32,000 ppm in Ecuador — 355 times the U.S. standard.

In all, Gottesfeld says paints in nearly 40 developing nations have been checked, with similar results: water-based latex paints are generally safe, but oil-based enamel paints often contain high levels of lead. And there’s rarely any labeling to help guide shoppers in those nations, even though there are usually plenty of lead-free alternatives. “They’re available on the same shelf at same price, but there’s no way for the consumer to necessarily know,” Gottesfeld says. “And that’s a big problem.”

Rising incomes in poor countries are supporting a booming paint market, yet most nations have no laws limiting lead in paint and the ones that do rarely enforce them, experts say. Moreover, poor nutrition increases kids’ absorption of lead, and many places lack infrastructure to document poisoning. Cameroon, for instance, has no labs capable of testing lead in blood and medical professionals are not trained to identify lead-poisoning symptoms, according to Samuel Tetsopgang of the Cameroonian NGO Research and Education Centre for Development, a coauthor on the Cameroon paint study.

Mary Jean Brown, chief of the CDC’s lead poisoning prevention branch, says it’s hard to watch other countries slap new lead paint on homes and schools after the decades of work that have gone into cleaning up lead paint in the U.S. — especially when it is entirely avoidable. “For me this is kind of crazymaking,” she says. “It’s like watching 13-year-olds start to smoke.”

Much of the lead-based paint that Gottesfeld, Clark, and others are finding is made by hundreds of small and mid-size companies you’ve never heard of that sell to national and regional markets. Nevertheless, in addition to the case in Cameroon involving the PPG subsidiary, there is some evidence
A Brazilian law restricting the amount of lead in architectural paints took effect in 2009.
that other top multinational corporations have been selling lead-based architectural paint abroad. A 2009 report by Toxics Link, an Indian NGO, in conjunction with the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), an environmental NGO coalition, surveyed paints in 10 countries, and found high levels of lead in Seigneurie paint in Senegal and in Rust-Oleum paint in Thailand, among other examples. A Rust-Oleum official told Yale Environment 360 that the Illinois-based company does not use lead in its paints but that its Thai distributor “has manufactured coatings based on obsolete Rust-Oleum industrial product formulas.”

The world’s top paint purveyor, the Dutch company AkzoNobel, hasn’t used lead in residential paints for years, and its entire paint line became lead-free last year when it removed lead from its marine paints, according to a spokesperson. Indeed AkzoNobel residential paints consistently test lead-free, according to Jack Weinberg, IPEN’s senior policy advisor. A spokesman for the number three company, Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams told Yale Environment 360 that none of the company’s architectural paints contain lead.

Global efforts to rid house paints of lead are gaining ground. In 2011 the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. Gottesfeld, Clark, Brown, and Weinberg are all involved. So is the International Paint and Printing Ink Council, a leading industry group.

Last summer, Weinberg and Clark authored a report arguing that lead can and should be phased out of decorative paints worldwide by 2020. Their efforts are paying off in places like Cameroon, India, and Malaysia, where some large paint companies stopped using lead voluntarily, including PPG, they say. A Brazilian law restricting the amount of lead in architectural paints took effect in 2009, Sri Lanka followed suit this year, and Cameroon, Thailand, and the Philippines appear to be moving in that direction, according to the report.

“It’s not rocket science,” Weinberg says. “With a modest amount of money this problem could be solved very easily.” He adds that with paint sales just now expanding rapidly in developing nations, there’s an opportunity to avoid the devastating legacy of lead paints that still shadows American children. “There’s still time to minimize the damage,” he says.

POSTED ON 28 Mar 2013 IN Climate Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Water Africa Africa Australia Central & South America 

COMMENTS


...and asbestos. Many developed nations are selling asbestos products to third world countries. Like Canada. Yes you Canada. Stop doing that.

Posted by Alex the garbologist on 01 Apr 2013


Great article.

My gosh, we live in a primitive society. Lead paint banned in Europe in the first part of the 20th century, but not until the late 70s in the US? Translation: US companies knowingly endangered the lives, took lives, and damaged health all so they could keep the profits rolling in.

Picture paint company executives in affluent retirement, their security and comfort made possible by the people whose lives they damaged or destroyed.

And now we repeat the process with other substances and with climate change, and still the operant feudal ethos, the divine right of profit over human life and well-being.

Posted by Eric on 22 Jul 2013


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


rebecca kesslerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic and about efforts to restore prairies in the U.S. Midwest.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


How Tiny Fish Could Reveal
Effects of Chemical Exposure

Researchers at a lab at Oregon State University are using zebrafish to assess the impacts of multiple chemical exposures. Their findings could help lead to a better understanding of how chemicals in the environment and in consumer products affect human health.
READ MORE

Bringing Back the Night:
A Fight Against Light Pollution

As evidence mounts that excessive use of light is harming wildlife and adversely affecting human health, new initiatives in France and elsewhere are seeking to turn down the lights that flood an ever-growing part of the planet.
READ MORE

Coal Pollution and the Fight
For Environmental Justice

As its director of "climate justice," Jacqueline Patterson is leading the NAACP’s campaign to shut down coal-burning power plants in minority communities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about the skepticism she faces from her own constituents.
READ MORE

Declining Bee Populations Pose
A Threat to Global Agriculture

The danger that the decline of bees and other pollinators represents to the world’s food supply was highlighted this week when the European Commission decided to ban a class of pesticides suspected of playing a role in so-called “colony collapse disorder.”
READ MORE

Mercury’s Silent Toll
On the World’s Wildlife

Scientists are only beginning to understand the impacts of mercury contamination on birds, fish, and other wildlife populations. But what they are finding is alarming — even low levels can cause harm, and chronic exposure has unexpected and troubling effects.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


A New Frontier for Fracking:
Drilling Near the Arctic Circle

by ed struzik
Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region's rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.
READ MORE

Africa’s Vultures Threatened
By An Assault on All Fronts

by madeline bodin
Vultures are being killed on an unprecedented scale across Africa, with the latest slaughter perpetrated by elephant poachers who poison the scavenging birds so they won’t give away the location of their activities.
READ MORE

As Small Hydropower Expands,
So Does Caution on Its Impacts

by dave levitan
Small hydropower projects have the potential to bring electricity to millions of people now living off the grid. But experts warn that planners must carefully consider the cumulative effects of constructing too many small dams in a single watershed.
READ MORE

Why Restoring Wetlands
Is More Critical Than Ever

by bruce stutz
Along the Delaware River estuary, efforts are underway to restore wetlands lost due to centuries of human activity. With sea levels rising, coastal communities there and and elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe are realizing the value of wetlands as important buffers against flooding and tidal surges.
READ MORE

Primate Rights vs Research:
Battle in Colombian Rainforest

by chris kraul
A Colombian conservationist has been locked in a contentious legal fight against a leading researcher who uses wild monkeys in his search for a malaria vaccine. A recent court decision that banned the practice is seen as a victory in efforts to restrict the use of monkeys in medical research.
READ MORE

Scientists Look for Causes of
Baffling Die-Off of Sea Stars

by eric wagner
Sea stars on both coasts of North America are dying en masse from a disease that kills them in a matter of days. Researchers are looking at various pathogens that may be behind what is known as sea star wasting syndrome, but they suspect that a key contributing factor is warming ocean waters.
READ MORE

Loss of Snowpack and Glaciers
In Rockies Poses Water Threat

by ed struzik
From the Columbia River basin in the U.S. to the Prairie Provinces of Canada, scientists and policy makers are confronting a future in which the loss of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains could imperil water supplies for agriculture, cities and towns, and hydropower production.
READ MORE

On Front Lines of Recycling,
Turning Food Waste into Biogas

by rachel cernansky
An increasing number of sewage treatment plants in the U.S. and Europe are processing food waste in anaerobic biodigesters, keeping more garbage out of landfills, reducing methane emissions, and producing energy to defray their operating costs.
READ MORE

Can Waterless Dyeing Processes
Clean Up the Clothing Industry?

by lydia heida
One of the world’s most polluting industries is the textile-dyeing sector, which in China and other Asian nations releases trillions of liters of chemically tainted wastewater. But new waterless dyeing technologies, if adopted on a large scale, could sharply cut pollution from the clothing industry.
READ MORE

How Weeds Could Help Feed
Billions in a Warming World

by lisa palmer
Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale