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Issue 48
, 2014
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Toxic Lead Widespread In World's Largest Paint Market

Source: Huffington Post, Date: , 2014

Bright yellows, reds, blues and greens coat a day care center's walls, fence, slide and swing. More colorful paints peel from tables inside a kindergarten classroom.

"Unfortunately, it's a common sight," said Yuyun Ismawati, coordinator of the Indonesia Toxics-Free Network, referencing the prolific use of potentially toxic paint in schools and other kid-friendly facilities throughout Indonesia.

Lead poisoning may be a risk at this brightly painted day care in Indonesia. (Balifokus Foundation, Indonesia)

Relative latecomers in the use of decorative and household paints, Indonesia and its neighbors throughout the developing Asia-Pacific are making up for lost time: The region is now the largest market in the world for paint. But this rapid growth for the industry may come with some serious costs to children's health and the nations' economies, according to a new European Union-sponsored study released on Monday.

A team of international researchers tested 803 paints purchased from stores in seven Asia-Pacific countries and found that 76 percent contained more lead than the U.S. regulatory standard of 90 parts per million. At least a quarter, generally with the most vibrant pigments, consisted of more than 10,000 ppm of the neurotoxic heavy metal, which is added as an inexpensive way to brighten color, speed drying and prevent corrosion.

"I was not surprised as much as horrified of the results," said Sara Brosche, project manager at IPEN, a global organization advocating for environmental health issues, and lead author on the new study. "Itís adding another burden on top of all the other disadvantages that these countries are facing."

"Compared to other issues with toxic chemicals, this is an easy one to prevent. You just donít allow it," Brosche added.

The findings come nearly a century after a 1921 international convention first limited the use of lead-based paint. Lead's hazards to human health, particularly that of young children, were already known at that time. Decades of accumulated evidence now warns of significant impacts to learning and behavior and risks of chronic diseases at even low levels of exposure -- generally through the lead dust from deteriorating paint.

In 1978, the U.S. followed other industrialized nations in banning lead from household paints. With the exception of the risks lingering in older homes, "everyone thought that lead paint was something in the past," Brosche said.

Meanwhile, in developing countries such as Indonesia with little history of lead paint use, Ismawati said, "people have no awareness about this danger."

Further, lead content was not labeled on most of the paint cans surveyed on store shelves throughout the Asia Pacific, according to IPEN's study. A few cans did reference being lead-free, but that even turned out to be deceiving in some cases.

"The can would say 'no added lead,' but then there may be 20,000 ppm of lead," said Scott Clark, professor emeritus of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati and a co-author on the IPEN report. In addition to greater transparency about lead content, Clark said that he and his colleagues are pushing for labels on new paint cans that warn of lead dust from older painted surfaces.

Advocates suggest it is in the best interest of developing nations, and the bottom-lines of paint makers, to take action and eliminate lead now.

"We know these paint markets are growing exponentially. If they continue to sell lead paint, it's going to create a huge legacy issue down the road," said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of the nonprofit Occupational Knowledge International. "The key here is that we want to avoid that legacy issue by cutting it off now rather than 20 years from now."

Gottesfeld testified in a trial last year over the liability of former lead paint makers for contamination of hundreds of thousands of California homes. On Monday, a judge denied a motion for a new trial from defendants Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and ConAgra Grocery Products. The companies will still be ordered to pay $1.1 billion into a fund to be used to clean up hazards from the legacy paint.

"The saga continues," added Gottesfeld, who has also discovered high lead concentrations in paints sold in other developing nations, as well as in at least one overseas lead-based paint manufacturer that was owned by a U.S. company.

The risks of the continued production and use of lead paint in Asia may also extend to nations at the receiving end of their exports. In fact, according to Brosche, the import into U.S. and Europe of toys coated with and containing high levels of lead initially flagged this issue and prompted the work of IPEN and others.

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