Get the Lead Out

We find out what goes into the paint we use on our walls and on our children’s toys
By Donna Cobban

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After months of wondering if the bubbling paint under the dining room window was rising damp, I grabbed a paint scraper and peeled off the layer of Cabbage White – a colour I had chosen soon after buying the house about seven years ago. The paint I had bought then was definitely lead-free, so I was not too concerned as I furiously scraped away. But there were several layers buried under this one and I soon found myself scraping away three to four layers of unknown paint. In front of me were patches of bare wall surrounded by islands of paint that still clung tight. And covering everything, including me, was a whole lot of paint dust. My house is more than 100 years old and I had no idea what this dust and its airborne articles contained. Did I need to be concerned about possible lead in this paint, or any other painted objects, in our home?
I put the question to Toni Stella, a paint technologist and training manager at Plascon Academy with 41 years of experience in the industry. My call catches him in the middle of a paint and safety class, but he listens to my concerns and imparts some useful safety tips: wear a mask and wash your hands thoroughly when you are done. Some protective head covering is also a good idea and I should dampen the wall as I work to prevent the paint dust from becoming airborne. And yes, he agrees that I should make sure there are no children in the house, just in case.
In many countries, you can pop down to your local hardware store and buy your own lead testing kit for a couple of hundred rand. In South Africa, lead testing can be done at the National Institute for Occupational Health in Johannesburg, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or a research laboratory based at Stellenbosch University. But these are units set aside for research, ruling out any possibility of you taking your own suspicious piece of flaking paint there for testing. You could use a hand-held analyser, but an entry-level unit will set you back about R240 000. It seems that trust is all we have to go on when it comes to lead levels in paint.
Where we stand legally
The Department of Health has upped its offensive and authorised provincial authorities to prosecute paint manufacturers whose products still have lead contents above the legal limit. Regulations controlling the use of lead in paint came into effect in 2010, but recent studies found that hazardous lead-based paints are still freely available on many shop shelves.
Professor Angela Mathee of the Medical Research Council (MRC), says that of paint samples collected from retailers, 40 percent still contained illegally high amounts of lead. Labels on paint cans were also misleading, with some not containing proper warnings as required by the new legislation. Mathee said in an MRC report on lead poisoning that there is “irrefutable evidence of the deficits and intellectual behavioural outcomes”, such as shortened concentration spans and hyperactivity, associated with lead exposure in children. There is also a growing link between high blood lead levels in childhood and aggressive or violent behaviour in early adulthood. The health department’s Professor Nicky Padayachee has said that lead poisoning could affect children’s IQ scores and contribute to learning difficulties and poor performance at school.
So, with this in mind, I wander through the aisles of paint at my local hardware store, hoping to expose a rogue paint manufacturer flouting the law, but everything seems above board. Stella tells me that it’s usually the smaller manufacturers that one needs to be wary of, and doubly so if they do not belong to the South African Paint Manufacturers Association (SAPMA), which is diligent in monitoring manufacturers. SAPMA states that it currently represents 90 percent of the paint manufactured in South Africa, a figure they have worked hard to increase over the years.
The whole process clearly needs a little more control and Mathee says the MRC, in partnership with the Department of Health, is buying paint from a range of suppliers to analyse their lead content. This is good news for a country short on watchdog bodies. But it is not only local paint that may be tainted; our children’s toys may also be at risk.
A large majority of the toys in our shops are imported and most importers and distributors I speak to tell me they are self-regulatory and choose to comply with European Union (EU) safety regulations. For this, they can produce a certificate of safety, otherwise known as the EN71 certificate, yet very few wish to go on record. But Mervyn Aires, from Ideal Cycle & Toy Wholesalers, a company started by his father in 1936, says that the only way the toy industry in South Africa will survive is through a process of self-regulation. “If customs insisted on stopping all imports to check them then small businesses would fold.” He is adamant that self-regulation is the only option. “Registering products with the SA Bureau of Standards is a lengthy process and, in the toy world, fads and fancies come and go fast.” It is therefore imperative for importers and distributors to hit the market at the right time. So, without sufficient watchdog mechanisms in place, the only way to ensure this happens safely, it seems, is through internal checks.
Prima Toys, one of the largest importers of toys in South Africa, says their products comply with the standard EU and US health and safety regulations. This offers scant comfort given that so many toys on that side of the world have been, and continue to be, recalled due to excessive amounts of lead in their paint. But locally, Prima can stand proud as their manufacturers, Hasbro and Leap Frog, have a clean track record here. Neither company was affected by the recall of toys during 2007. Hasbro tests the paint prior to application when manufacturing in the US and they employ an independent party to test products imported from China. They have also intensified the frequency of random product testing, stepped up the number of unannounced inspections at factories and implemented additional spot checks of products before they are delivered to retailers.
Medical checks
While the larger importers and distributors may be above board, there is still lead out there, and vigilance is needed especially when it comes to choosing toys. Although doctors don’t seem to routinely test for levels of lead in children, Mathee says, “Part of the problem is that lead poisoning is much more widespread than many doctors and health workers realise; especially when you consider that scientists from many parts of the globe have called for the blood lead ‘action’ level to be lowered to as little as two micrograms per decilitre of a child’s blood.” The action level refers to the maximum lead level that is allowed before a child needs medical attention – the internationally accepted action level is 10 milligrams per decilitre. With this in mind, Mathee tells me that, in her opinion, the medical profession is not as vigilant about the prospect of lead poisoning as they ought to be. “One child who contracts lead poisoning by chewing paint coatings with illegally high levels is one too many.”
In our local playground, the paint has peeled away to reveal that the slide has been green, blue and red over the years. There are flakes of paint on the ground and I wonder if I need to be concerned. The MRC says lead from playground paint is not generally seen to play a major role in childhood lead poisoning. However they do report that a child in a Canadian playground suffered from lead poisoning after ingesting paint chips. Mathee cautions that there is also the risk “that over time, chipping of lead-based paint may lead to elevated concentrations of lead in soil in the playground, especially if it is bare soil”. She adds, “It is important to discourage children from excessive hand-to-mouth behaviour while playing in playgrounds or other sandy areas, and to encourage handwashing after a visit to the playground.” At particular risk are children with pica, a disorder usually prevalent in pregnant women, small children and those with developmental disabilities, that results in an abnormal craving to ingest objects of a non-nutritive nature, such as metal, paint and sand.
Lead exposure
Lead is a common element that occurs naturally and in various objects and substances, including petrol, paint, old plumbing pipes and some jewellery. A 2005 Medical Research Council screening of painted toys found that some had as much as 1 500 times the accepted levels of lead. The high-risk items included wooden puzzles, building blocks and other toys. According to the South African Paint Manufacturers Association, the problem of lead in paint and the effect on children arose some time ago when white lead was widely used in wood primers. “Children would chew on windowsills in particular and this was exacerbated by the fact that the compound of lead in the paint had a sweet taste.”
There has been improvement in lead levels since the phasing out of lead in petrol in 2006. However, an MRC survey in 2007 has shown that far too many young children in South Africa continue to have unacceptably high blood lead concentrations. If the international blood lead action level for children is lowered to five or even two milligrams per decilitre, the vast majority of children in SA, especially those living in urban areas, would be on the wrong side of the accepted amount.
How dangerous is it?
Lead poisoning is not always apparent as its danger lies in its cumulative effect. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from:
  • damage to the brain and nervous system,
  • behavioural and learning problems, such as hyperactivity*,
  • slowed growth,
  • hearing problems, and
  • headaches.
*Some studies have found that children with ADHD have increased levels of lead in their blood, but further research needs to take place as the amount of lead children are exposed to has been steadily dropping, while cases of ADHD seem to be continually rising.
Other tips to keep lead levels down in your family
  • The first flow of water in the morning or during the night should not be given to babies or young children as lead can leach into the water from your plumbing pipes.
  • Vacuum cleaner dust should not be put in the compost bin as this dust can contain high levels of lead.
  • Pets often show symptoms of lead poisoning before people. If your pet is unwell and a vet diagnoses lead poisoning, you should see that all members of the household have a blood test for lead.
  • Pets should be kept outside and definitely off children’s beds because they collect lead dust on their coats. Regular washing of the pet and handwashing for the family members is important.
Courtesy of the Australian Lead Education and Abatement Design Group (LEAD) 

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