The truth about lead in paint

29 Jan 2016

The emotive subject of “Lead in Paint” has raised its nasty head once more resulting in sensational newspaper banners announcing that 60% of all paint sold in South Africa contains illegal levels of ‘brain damaging lead’ and casting insinuations that the Paint industry in South Africa are either oblivious of lead levels in paint or disinterested in facing up to the responsibility of poisoning our children. It is of equal concern that ill informed, but well intentioned people, are driven to spreading disinformation on the hazards associated with paint and the use of lead pigments, as was the recent case in the article published in a Kwa Zulu Natal newspaper, which was based on an Indian study, written nearly five years ago, to highlight the short comings of the Indian Paint Industry and in doing so used information pertaining to the South African market. The adage of “Why mess up a good story with the truth” is a case in point.

A summary of the current information is necessary to get the correct perspective. Firstly, it should be understood that lead has accumulative (chronic) toxicity and can accumulate in the body. Lead is a common element and is widely spread in nature and under normal circumstances the body excretes it and so levels do not increase and the body can cope with a small amount. If the intake however, is excessive it will accumulate over a period of time, with side effects.

The physiological differences in children means that the same amount of lead to an adult can have different effects on them and it also appears that metabolic differences means that the effects upon children are exacerbated especially in the forming brain. The greater possibility of children putting strange things in their mouths also adds to the problem.

It is so widespread that it is virtually impossible to call anything ‘Lead free’ and for this reason some manufacturers prefer to use the term ‘No added lead’ when referring to the subject. Alternatively, they would need to conduct complex analysis on all their raw materials.

Since lead is an accumulative poison certain lead products are classified as chronic toxins and are therefore classified as “Hazardous Substances’ and not as ‘Dangerous Goods’ since little or no direct contact with the substance is contemplated in the transportation thereof.

During the last century large amounts of lead have been put into the environment due to the use of lead in petrol. This still continues to some extent, but is being reduced with the use of lead free fuels. It is interesting to note that most of the impetus to remove the lead has come because of smog in larger cities and not because of the lead content pushed into the atmosphere. To reduce emissions of undesirable pollutants, platinum elements in the exhaust systems of motor vehicles became mandatory in certain cities, but these elements are killed by lead in the fuel – hence the need to reduce lead. This incidentally also meant re-engineering the IC engine and as the older engines are damaged by lead-free petrol an immediate change was not feasible.

The danger lies in the fact that in emphasising the one aspect, the greater danger is ignored. More recently a broader view than those of the metropolitan areas has been taken i.e. air pollution, the use of lead in petrol has been seriously addressed and levels reduced. The first use of lead in petrol was used in the mid 1920’s and only vague calculations can be made as to how many tons have been spewed into the atmosphere and are now part of the food chain.

Lead is a very stable product and nearly all the lead used in petrol must still be around somewhere. Opening Google, on the world wide internet and entering “lead in bread” is an illuminating experience. It must be understood that the lead on the paint is far greater than the lead in the paint.

What now needs to be understood is that thousands of tons of lead distributed through car exhausts is still around and the vegetation must have taken some of it up and so got into the food chain. In addition, the lead content in the ground, particularly in the Gauteng area where gold mining and uranium extraction have been prevalent for decades exacerbates the issue even further. Attempting to draw the attention away from this by placing the blame on paint is counter productive. This lead is not going to go away and so the medical profession now needs to tackle the real issues by finding ways of minimising the effects and stop tilting at windmills. The damage has been done and the need to minimise the effects on the most susceptible, the children, must now become the priority. Legislation can do nothing to reduce the current lead in the environment no matter where it came from, it would be closing the stable door after the horse has gone.

We now have a new regulation from the Department of Heath in the pipeline. The department of Labour issued Lead Regulations 2001 which defines “Lead Paint” but the Department of Health do not appear to be aware of it and have a different definition in their new regulation. This adds to the confusion. It is interesting to note that there has been a South African Standard (SANS 10265) around since 1999 which covers the labelling of hazardous substances including lead containing products but no Government department has seen fit to recognise it.

It is of interest to note that a recent article in the press suggests that it is illegal to sell lead containing paint but that is not so. Providing it complies with the Lead Regulations it is quite legal.

It is the solubility of certain lead compounds in the acid in the stomach that present problems, otherwise it goes straight through the system. If the lead is in such a form that it is not soluble in stomach acids, then there is no problem. It is quite safe to continue using that beautiful lead crystal glassware. It has been established that lead solubility in acid is the deciding factor because the stomach acids can solubilise the lead and in doing so, make it toxic. In this way it is not the total amount of lead that is so important, but the amount of soluble lead, and accordingly, this is the definition given in the lead regulations.

The problems of lead in paint and the effect on children arose many years ago when white lead was widely used in wood primers. Children would chew on lead in the windowsills in particular and in this was exacerbated by the fact that the compound of the lead in the paint had a sweet taste. As a point of interest, Lead Acetate was also known as ‘Sugar of Lead’ because it had a sweet taste. As this chemical is easily soluble even in water it is very toxic.

Besides the use of Red and White Lead in primers Lead based pigments still remain the most cost effective method of obtaining stable bright and durable colourful coatings (Particularly yellow, red and green) It is in this area that SAPMA members are committed to eliminate their use and use more expensive, but safer substitutes where necessary. We do not expect children to eat road line paint but we do need a stable pigment to make it more durable. The amount of lead in an available form in these pigments is much lower than in the oxides and also they are used in lesser quantities. The availability of lead as a toxin is defined in the Lead Regulations.

In 1973, the Department of Health published the Hazardous Substances Act, but were apparently unaware that the United Nations Dangerous Goods classification was limited to only certain aspects of the subject and they adapted this listing for the purpose of defining Hazardous Substances in the Republic. This, in effect, excludes all chronic toxins as these are not particularly dangerous for transport, only for repeated exposure. In the compilation of Safety Data Sheets, the Department of Labour cover the use and the definitions of substances hazardous to health by means of another listing as used in Europe which takes into account all aspects of health and safety concerning direct contact with chemicals. As mentioned earlier the Department of Labour have regulations concerning the definition and labelling of lead which do not seem to have been considered. It is interesting to note that although the labelling requirements are shown on these sheets they do not need to be on the containers as there is no regulation on this aspect

This means that thousands of chemical preparations are being sold and the supplier is left to his own devices to label if and as he sees fit. This is in spite of a largely neglected standard (SANS 10265) which covers this. Pity the Dept of Health did not know about this when it was published.

When Angela Mathee’s paper was sensationalised in 2003, the paint industry, through the auspices of the South African Paint Manufacturers Association, SAPMA, together with the South African Toy Industry, accepted the challenge and the opportunity of participating with the Department of Health, in the quest for controlling the use of lead in paint and were indeed principal participants in the drawing up of the current legislation classifying lead in paint as a hazardous substance. SAPMA participated in an educational promotion, together with the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council, whereby communicative educational material entitled “Lead in Paint, an invisible poison” highlighting signs and symptoms of lead poisoning, were widely distributed in densely populated areas. In addition to other recommendations to it’s members on labelling some of which has been in place for some 25 years –e.g. “Contains Lead – not to be used on articles likely to be sucked or chewed by children”, SAPMA embarked, at its own expense, on its own communications project, advising retailers, who sell the paint to the public and the consumer, of the relevance of lead in paint and highlighting the responsibilities falling on the retailers of paint, in providing the correct information and products to the consumer. SAPMA, through its executive, communicated its very strong views on the subject, to all its manufacturing members and included the responsible use of lead in paints, under the conditions of the legislation, in its comprehensive Code of Conduct and insisted on compliance of the legislation. Hardly the actions of a disinterested industry.

Les Fisher, a doyen of the paint industry, whose career has spanned a half a century, recently commented on the subject:

“When evaluating lead levels in paint this must be done on the basis of soluble lead and not total lead. In this way the total amount of lead calculated as an element is meaningless it is only that which is in an available form and can be digested that matters. Having a lead battery in your car does not make it toxic!!

So if you are living in a building which is more that 30 to 40 years old, then the woodwork might have a lead primer in it and if it is more than 10 to 15 years old and is bright yellow, red or green, then there could be lead present. So if it is, do not eat it – let sleeping dogs lie. As lead is a slow, sneaky, accumulative poison it is at its most dangerous in small doses over a long period of time as opposed to one massive dose, which would probably go straight through the system. In the case of children, they may have faster metabolisms than adults and a smaller body mass so are more prone to the effects. Add to this built in desire to shove anything and everything in their mouths and we can see a greater problem.

Considering the vast quantities of lead which have been put into the atmosphere from petrol in a digestible form the problem could be more one of lead on paint rather than lead in paint and I believe it is then good old-fashioned sanitation that can be the answer. Use a vacuum cleaner or a damp cloth – not a duster to clean. You do not have to eat lead contaminated substances – only breathe them. As Tom Lehrer put it “It is alright to breathe providing you don’t inhale”.

Let us hope that Government’s current initiatives in legislation to control lead in paint used on children’s toys has some effect, which compliments their initiative to call for the testing of all imported toys. The lower lead in fuels will affect the issue more.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the South African Paint Manufacturers Association represent only 65% of the paint manufactured in South Africa at present, since membership of the Association is voluntary. SAPMA is constantly striving to expand its influence over the remaining 35% of the market, which represent approximately 200 small to medium sized manufacturers of paint and coatings. In addition, significant changes and updates are being updated on the SAPMA website offering consumers and paint users useful information pertaining to old lead painted surfaces and the future choice of paints that are safe.

SAPMA is dedicated to a programme of continuous improvement in the industry and an expansion of its membership in pursuance of responsibility and accountability towards the general public by the paint industry. The Responsible Packaging Management Association Industry (RPMASA) joins them in an endeavour to make the supply of chemical preparations to the retail market trouble-free and ensure that all concerned formulate, label and pack their products in a sensible and responsible way.