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 


...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


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.

Email address 
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.



The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

Rachel Carson’s Critics Keep On,
But She Told Truth About DDT

More than half a century after scientist Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of overusing the pesticide DDT, conservative groups continue to vilify her and blame her for a resurgence of malaria. But DDT is still used in many countries where malaria now rages.

Designing Wetlands to Remove
Drugs and Chemical Pollutants

Drinking water supplies around the world often contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and synthetic compounds that may be harmful to human health. One solution being tried in the U.S. and Europe is to construct man-made wetlands that naturally degrade these contaminants.

Natural Gas Boom Brings Major
Growth for U.S. Chemical Plants

The surge in U.S. production of shale gas is leading to the rapid expansion of chemical and manufacturing plants that use the gas as feedstock. But environmentalists worry these new facilities will bring further harm to industrialized regions already bearing a heavy pollution burden.

A Scourge for Coal Miners
Stages a Brutal Comeback

Black lung — a debilitating disease caused by inhaling coal dust — was supposed to be wiped out by a landmark 1969 U.S. mine safety law. But a recent study shows that the worst form of the disease now affects a larger share of Appalachian coal miners than at any time since the early 1970s.


MORE IN Reports

For European Wind Industry,
Offshore Projects Are Booming

by christian schwägerl
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

by jim robbins
Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

by mike ives
To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

Natural Aquaculture: Can We
Save Oceans by Farming Them?

by richard schiffman
A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.

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


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

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.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


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


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.