Toxic levels of lead in more than 50% of Harare paint brands

Photo Credit: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi October (2012).

PRESS RELEASE: 9th January 2024

New research has found that oil-based paint sold by more than 50% of brands in Harare contain toxic levels of lead, posing a potential threat to the health of Zimbabweans, mostly children. The most harmful paints were typically observed to be yellow and red colours. The Environmental Management Agency of Zimbabwe (EMA) has called on manufacturers to urgently remove lead from their products.

 

In the study, EMA and Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) tested 147 oil-based paints from 63 brands for sale in Harare. The paints were mainly brush-on oil-based paints, but also included some spray paints and colourants. Fifty-five percent (55%) of the brands sampled sold one or more paints containing levels of lead higher than the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. Some paints contained over 1,000 times the safe limit. Some brands made ‘lead free’ or ‘non-toxic’ green-washing claims despite their paint containing hazardous levels of lead.

 

Photo Credit: World Health Organization (2022).

 

Lead exposure has severe negative health impacts, particularly on children. It causes permanent damage to their brain development, worsening their educational outcomes and future potential. Later in life, lead exposure causes hypertension and heart disease. It can be symptomless or present with mild symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stomach discomfort or nausea, making it easily missed. Potential lead poisoning from paint and other sources is estimated to affect 5.7 million children in Zimbabwe, costing the country $298 million in lost earnings every year.

 

EMA and LEEP’s research found hazardous levels of lead in five major paint brands and in twenty-nine smaller brands. Both decorative brush-on oil-based house paints as well as spray paints were found to be toxic. The most harmful paints were typically yellow and red colours.

In 2023, EMA convened a meeting of key stakeholders to discuss the issue and set out clear actions to eliminate lead paint in Zimbabwe. The study results have since been shared with industry, and LEEP is providing support to several major brands to help them eliminate lead from their products. EMA and LEEP plan to conduct a follow-up study to assess whether brands have reduced lead to safe levels. 

 

Lead exposure can be caused by various sources, with oil-based decorative paint being an important source globally. The new research from EMA and LEEP suggests that oil-based paint is likely to be one major cause of childhood lead poisoning in Zimbabwe.

 

Mr Aaron Chigona, Director General, EMA, said:

“The data in this initial study provides clear evidence on this important issue. We strongly urge manufacturers to immediately remove lead ingredients from their paint. LEEP provides free support to manufacturers to help them in this process and EMA encourages industry to take up this offer. EMA will be taking steps to regulate lead in oil-based paint and to create a country free from the harms of lead paint exposure.”

 

Dr Clare Donaldson, Co-Executive Director of LEEP, said: 

“We applaud EMA’s initiative in conducting this important study, and look forward to supporting the Government of Zimbabwe’s efforts to regulate lead paint. As more manufacturers worldwide switch to paint without added lead, we encourage industry partners in Zimbabwe to take up LEEP’s offer of free support. We offer no-cost technical assistance to industry partners looking to remove lead from their paint and to solve this critical problem together.”

 

Professor Jean-Marie Dangou, WHO Representative to Zimbabwe

WHO recognises the economic impact of lead poisoning which includes increased healthcare costs, lost productivity, and decreased economic growth. By addressing the issue of lead poisoning in Zimbabwe, the government can protect the health of its citizens and promote sustainable economic development.

The WHO urges the Government of Zimbabwe to review their paint production processes with the aim of reducing lead content below the recommended limit set by WHO. “It is crucial that we take intentional steps to protect our children from the devastating effects of lead poisoning,” emphasized Professor. Jean-Marie Dangou, WHO’s representative in Zimbabwe.

 

Notes:

  1. For further details, please contact the LEEP team at bal@leadelimination.org, or on +44 747 568 5761 or +44 7826 411936. 
  2. LEEP is an international NGO that works with policy-makers, regulatory authorities, and industry to end the sale of lead paints. Its mission is to eliminate childhood lead poisoning and improve the health and potential of children worldwide. LEEP is a member of the UN Environment Programme and WHO’s Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. It is currently working across fourteen countries to eliminate lead paint. More information about LEEP is available at https://leadelimination.org/. 
  3. More information on the study method is as follows: In June 2023, EMA and LEEP purchased 147 cans of home-use solvent-based paint  from paint shops and hardware stores in Harare. Where available, three colours from each brand were included. Dried samples of the paints were prepared and shipped to the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory (WOHL). WOHL is accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) under the US EPA Environmental Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program and participates in the Environmental Lead Proficiency Analytical Testing program. WOHL analysed the samples for total lead content by using the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 7303 method. The total lead content was reported in parts per million (ppm) dry weight. The methodology is further described in Kambarami et al. (2022) and Siddiqui et al. (2023).