Study results: Malawi and Botswana
Published on: July 13, 2021

As part of our initial activities, LEEP analyses the lead content of solvent-based paint available on the market in countries without data on the current prevalence of lead paint. The purpose is to determine whether there is lead in household paint currently being sold in the country and whether it is likely that paint is contributing to the burden of lead poisoning. If high levels of lead are found LEEP advocates for effective regulation of lead paint and supports manufacturers to reformulate their paint.

LEEP carried out studies in Malawi in November of 2020, and in Botswana in February of 2021. Research in Malawi was carried out in collaboration with Stanley Kadammanja and Dr Ephraim Vunain at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. In this report we share the results and study details. Similar studies are ongoing in Zimbabwe and Madagascar and the results will be published in the coming weeks. 

Lead in solvent-based paints for home use in Malawi

23 cans of solvent-based paints intended for home use were purchased in November and December 2020 from stores in Malawi. Over 20 hardware and paint stores in Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Zomba were visited to ensure all main brands were included. Eight brands were identified and from each brand, white, yellow, and red (or similar colours if not available) were included. Basic market analysis was also conducted to estimate the relative popularity of different brands, colours, and paint types. All paints were analysed by an accredited laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, USA for lead content based on dry weight using inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry. The laboratory participates in the Environmental Lead Proficiency Analytical Testing program, ensuring reliability of the results.

Results showed that 57% of paints and 75% of brands analysed contained dangerously high levels of lead (greater than 90ppm, the maximum level recommended by the WHO). 52% of paints had lead content greater than 600ppm and 9% had a lead content greater than 10,000ppm The highest lead content of the paints analysed was 17,000ppm.

High levels of lead were found primarily in coloured paints, indicating that lead pigments may be the source. In one brand, similarly raised lead levels were found across all colours, suggesting the use of a lead drier. High lead levels were not found in the two paint brands imported from South Africa. All locally manufactured paint brands contained high levels of lead in some colours.

Lead in solvent-based paints for home use in Botswana

LEEP purchased 19 cans of solvent-based paints across 7 brands available on the market in Botswana in February 2021. Over 15 hardware and paint stores in Gaborone were visited to ensure all main brands were included. From each brand, white, yellow, and red (or similar colours if not available) were included. The paint market in Botswana is more centralised, with all paint in Francistown and other villages being sent from Gaborone, so Gaborone was the only location surveyed. After being collected and dried, the paint samples were sent to the accredited Wisconsin Occupational Health Lab to be analysed for lead content. This is the same lab used for analysis of LEEP’s Malawi samples.

Results showed that none of the paints analysed in Botswana contained greater than 100ppm of lead. All results were below the reporting limit, which due to an error varied between 86ppm and 100ppm depending on the sample analysed. We therefore cannot determine if all paints had lead content lower than the internationally recommended 90ppm limit, but can report that none exceeded 100ppm.

The study suggests that solvent-based paints for home use currently available on the market in Gaborone are not a source of lead exposure. The finding is likely because the vast majority of paints included were imported from South Africa, where lead paint regulation is in place. However, Botswana itself does not have lead paint regulation so there is some risk that lead paints could enter the market, either from local production or imports from nearby countries that produce lead paint. Note that these results do not mean that lead poisoning from paint as a whole is not an issue in Botswana – only that new home use paint is unlikely to be an important source of lead poisoning. Older lead paint on existing surfaces or industrial paints could still be a source of lead exposure, but these sources are not currently a priority focus for LEEP as they are relatively more costly and less tractable to address. 

As solvent-based paints for home use currently available on the market in Botswana do not appear to contain high levels of lead, after sharing the results with relevant stakeholders and advising the introduction of lead paint regulation to prevent lead paint from entering the market in future, LEEP will not be not be prioritising further operations in Botswana. We will instead be focusing our activities on countries that currently have high levels of household lead paint use.

Next steps

LEEP shared the study results showing high levels of lead in Malawi’s paint with the Malawi Bureau of Standards. This resulted in a commitment to implement lead paint regulation and get lead paint off shelves to protect children from its harmful effects. LEEP is now providing technical support to ensure successful enforcement of regulation and the compliance of local lead paint manufacturers. We will later be repeating the Malawi paint study to monitor progress. 

LEEP is currently carrying out paint sampling studies in Madagascar and Zimbabwe in collaboration with partners at the Madagascar Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the University of Zimbabwe. We aim to run studies in a further four countries in our second year (September 2021 to September 2022). We look forward to sharing the results for Madagascar and Zimbabwe in the coming weeks. Updates and results will be shared in our newsletter, which you can sign up to here