New published study: Lead levels of new solvent-based household paints in Zimbabwe and Botswana
Published on: November 17, 2022

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Summary: a new journal article presents the results of LEEP’s paint studies in Zimbabwe and Botswana, conducted in collaboration with academics from the Paediatric Association of Zimbabwe and University of Zimbabwe. Whilst no solvent-based paints purchased in Botswana had a lead content greater than 100 ppm, in Zimbabwe, 70% of samples were greater than 90 ppm lead – a dangerously high level. The highest lead content detected was 12,000 ppm. The results were discussed in LEEP’s recent meeting with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) of Zimbabwe. Mr Christopher Mushava, Environmental Protection Director at EMA, reports that the Agency will be reviewing the regulations relevant to lead in paint in early 2023, with a view to developing lead paint limits.

The results of LEEP’s paint testing, conducted in Zimbabwe and Botswana in collaboration with academics at the University of Zimbabwe, have recently been published in the African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine (html, pdf).  

We previously reported the results from the study in Botswana; in summary, we purchased 19 cans of solvent-based paints across seven brands available on the market in Botswana in February 2021. No samples tested had a lead content greater than 100 ppm. Of the seven brands tested, six were manufactured in South Africa, which had a 600 ppm lead paint law in place. For this reason, we have deprioritised immediate further work in Botswana, and we focus on the results from Zimbabwe in the rest of this post. 

Common brands of solvent-based paint were purchased from popular hardware stores in Harare, Zimbabwe, in July 2021. Five major hardware and paint stores were visited to identify all five common brands available; ten cans of solvent-based paint from these five brands were included.

Samples drying in Zimbabwe

All paints were analysed by a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, USA for lead content based on dry weight using inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry. The laboratory is accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), has ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, and it participates in the Environmental Lead Proficiency Analytical Testing program (ELPAT). The laboratory’s analytical methods and certifications are consistent with those recommended by the World Health Organisation for measuring lead in paint.

This study found that seven out of ten paints sampled (70%) contained dangerous levels of lead (with a total lead concentration above 90 parts per million, ppm, by dry weight). Six samples (60%) contained total lead concentrations above 600 ppm and two samples (20%) over 10,000 ppm. The highest lead content detected—measured in two samples— was 12,000ppm, which is over 130 times the recommended limit.

Lead content of the 10 samples of solvent-based paints. 90 ppm is the maximum limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

The lead content of samples was greater in coloured paints. All white or cream paint samples (n = 2) had a lead content below 90 ppm. All red, yellow or orange (n = 6) samples were above 90 ppm. Fifty percent of green samples (n = 2) were above 90 ppm. This indicates that lead pigments are likely to be the source of lead in the paints. 

Proportion of paints that are lead paints (lead content >90 ppm) by colour, of the 10 analysed solvent-based samples.

The sample size of this study is small (n = 10); nevertheless, it shows that readily available, common brands of solvent-based paint in Zimbabwe contain dangerous levels of lead, which pose serious health risks to the population of Zimbabwe, particularly children. Regulating the presence of lead in household paints is a clear and effective path to reduce children’s lead exposure.

The results of this study were discussed in LEEP’s recent meeting with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) of Zimbabwe. EMA’s mission is to regulate, monitor and promote sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment. Mr Christopher Mushava, Environmental Protection Director at EMA, reports that the Agency will be reviewing the regulations relevant to lead in paint in early 2023, with a view to developing lead paint limits. With 88 countries now having introduced legal limits on the lead content of paint, EMA’s efforts will make an important contribution to global progress and to the goals of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, a joint WHO and UNEP initiative, to protect children from lead exposure. LEEP is glad to offer support to EMA for this project.

Thank you to Prof. Rose A. Kambarami, Dr. Louisa Chikara Mudawarima and Dr. Gwen Kandawasvika from the Paediatric Association of Zimbabwe and University of Zimbabwe for their collaboration on this project.