The report appears in the early online edition of the journal Environmental Research, to be published in September 2006.
The researchers say that this lead-based paint production poses a global health threat, and a worldwide ban is urgently needed to avoid future public health problems.
Lead is a malleable metal previously used to improve the durability and color luster of paint used in homes and other buildings and on steel structures, such as bridges. Now scientifically linked to impaired intellectual and physical growth in children, lead is also found in some commonly imported consumer products, including candy, folk and traditional medications, ceramic dinnerware and metallic toys and trinkets.
In a two-year study headed by Scott Clark, PhD, the UC-led research team found that more than 75 percent of the consumer paint tested from countries without controls—including India, Malaysia and China—had levels exceeding U.S. regulations. Collectively, the countries represent more than 2.5 billion people. In Singapore, which enforces the same lead restriction on new paint as the United States, lead levels were significantly lower.
“Paint manufacturers are aggressively marketing lead-based paints in countries without lead content restrictions,” says Clark, professor of environmental health at UC. “In some cases, companies are offering the same or similar products, minus the lead, in a regulated country.”
“There is a clear discrepancy in product safety outside the United States,” he adds, “and in today’s global economy, it would be irresponsible for us to ignore the public health threat for the citizens in the offending countries—as well as the countries they do business with.”
This study, Dr. Clark says, is believed to be the first to show that new paint in many unregulated Asian countries greatly exceeds U.S. safety levels.
The UC-led team analyzed 80 consumer paint samples of various colors and brands from four countries—India, Malaysia, China and Singapore—to determine the amount of lead and compare them with U.S. standards.
Each paint sample was applied in a single layer to a wood block, left to dry and then removed and analyzed in UC laboratories for lead content.
About 50 percent of the paint sold in China, India and Malaysia—none of which appear to have regulations on lead—had lead levels 30 times higher than U.S. regulations. In contrast in Singapore, which has well-enforced regulations, only 10 percent of paint samples were above U.S. regulations, the highest being six times the U.S. limit.
Clark says he is concerned about children who are currently exposed to lead in their houses and neighborhoods—and for those who will live in such places in the future.
“Lead-based paints have already poisoned millions of children in the United States and will likely cause similar damage in the future as paint use increases in Asian countries and elsewhere,” he says. “Our findings provide stark evidence of the urgent need for an effective worldwide ban on the use of lead-based paint.”
Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning for a number of reasons, including their natural hand-to-mouth behaviors. Workers responsible for removing lead-based paint are also at high risk for lead poisoning.
In 1978, the United States restricted lead content in paint after determining that people—especially young children—were being poisoned by environmental exposures to the element. Many Third World countries, says Clark, did not follow suit, and continue to manufacture and sell lead-based paints that would be prohibited in the United States and in some other countries.
“We’ve known for years that there are good substitutes for lead in paint,” he continues, “so it’s absolutely incomprehensible that paint manufacturers—particularly large companies with plentiful resources—would knowingly distribute a product that can be dangerous to people.”
“Some lead-contaminated items intended for use by children, painted playground equipment, for example, are manufactured in countries with limited to zero government regulation on lead in consumer products,” says Clark.
Although American brand paints were not available for purchase in this study, several U.S. multinational paint companies are among the top in Asia and some Asian paint companies have arrangements with U.S. companies.
“American companies need to take a stand and encourage their international collaborators to demand lower lead contents in consumer products—including paint,” he adds. “It’s not only the ethical thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible choice to prevent billions of dollars in future health costs and property clean-up costs.”
This research was funded by the UC’s environmental health department and division of occupational health and hygiene, with partial support from NITON Corporation for travel in China.
Collaborators in this study include Rebecca Clark and Sandy Roda of UC, Krishna Rampal, MD, of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia, Venkatesh Thuppil, PhD, of the National Referral Center for Lead Poisoning Prevention in India, and Chin Chen of the Occupational Safety and Health Center at Singapore Polytechnic.
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