15 February 2023
By Rehan Piracha
A research study has found that 40% of oil-based paints sampled from the market contained dangerous and illegal levels of lead, endangering the health of Pakistan’s children.
In view of the study findings, the Pakistan Standards & Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) has called on paint manufacturers to urgently remove lead from their products.
In the study, doctors from the Aga Khan University (AKU) and Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) tested 60 residential-use paints from 21 brands for sale in Karachi. Forty per cent of the paints sampled contained levels of lead higher than Pakistan’s mandatory limit and above the level recommended by the World Health Organization. Some paint contained a thousand times the limit.
Lead poisoning impacting children’s health
Lead exposure has severe negative health impacts on children, causing permanent damage to their cognitive development, stunted growth and anaemia. Lead poisoning from paint and other sources is estimated to affect 47 million children in Pakistan, costing the country $38 billion in lost earnings every year.
In 2017 the PSQCA introduced a mandatory standard that restricts the level of lead in paint to 100 parts per million. The new data will support the PSQCA’s efforts to ensure manufacturers are complying with the compulsory limit.
‘Lead-free brands contained high levels of lead’
AKU and LEEP’s research found high levels of lead in nine of the major paint brands, and in eight smaller brands. Some brands made ‘lead-free’ claims despite their paint containing high levels of lead. The most harmful paints were typically yellow and red colours.
‘Lead in paints cause of lead poisoning in children’
Lead exposure can be caused by various sources, with paint being an important source globally. The new research from AKU and LEEP suggests that paint is likely to be one cause of childhood lead poisoning in Pakistan. “The data in this study provides valuable guidance for our enforcement of Pakistan’s compulsory lead paint standards, which exist to protect the population from harm. We urge manufacturers to swiftly remove lead ingredients from their paint, and we will be taking steps to ensure compliance,” Zain ul Abedin, Director General of the PSQCA, said.
LEEP offers help to paint manufacturers over lead removal
Dr Lucia Coulter, Co-Executive Director of LEEP, appreciated the PSQCA response to the study and offered support in the enforcement of lead levels in paints manufactured in the country. “We applaud the Government of Pakistan’s leadership on lead policy, and look forward to supporting its enforcement efforts. LEEP is offering no-cost technical support to any partners in industry who would like assistance in removing lead from their paint,” Dr Lucia Coulter said.
According to Dr Zafar Fatmi, Professor of Environmental Health & Climate Change, Community Health Sciences at Aga Khan University, even low levels of lead exposure could greatly affect the health of children. “Lead is neurotoxic and even low levels of exposure for children can result in reduced intelligence, lower educational attainment, reduced future earnings, and increased violent behaviour. Lead affects all body systems, also causing anaemia, growth stunting, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease,” Dr Zafar Fatmi added.
Reduction in lead in paints can improve child health
Dr Imran Saqib Khalid, Director of Governance and Policy at WWF-Pakistan, emphasised that a reduction in lead levels in paints used across households and schools could greatly improve child health in the country. “Pakistan is estimated to have the second highest known level of childhood lead poisoning in the world. Reducing lead in paint is an effective and low-cost opportunity to improve child health, reduce poverty and contribute to the UN sustainable development goals,” Dr Imran Saqib Khalid said.
Manufacturers should switch to safer alternatives
Dr Durr-e-Amna Siddiqui, Resident in Community Health Sciences at Aga Khan University, noted that many countries have successfully eliminated lead paint as safer alternatives have become available. “Lead is not a necessary ingredient in paint. Data suggests that lead is primarily used in Pakistan’s paint as a pigment. However, safe alternative pigments are widely available, and many countries have successfully eliminated lead paint. The study showed that some brands in Pakistan have already removed lead ingredients,” Dr Durr-e-Amna Siddiqui added.
LEEP is an international NGO that works with policy-makers 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 with several national governments to eliminate lead paint.