Protecting Children’s Health from Lead Poisoning in Paints in the US and Around the World

Pictures of brightly painted playgrounds, schools, and day care centers make for cheerful spaces for smiling, laughing children. However, in many developing countries these colorful paints can actually pose a serious health threat because lead can still legally be used in paints in places where children live and play. Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards and are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning from lead in paint.

Lead poses serious, lifelong health risks to children. As lead paints deteriorate, it enters the environment and can lead to lead poisoning. Some of the potential effects include sensory, motor, cognitive, and behavioral impacts that can result in lowered intelligence; reading and learning disabilities; impaired hearing, reduced attention span; hyperactivity; delayed puberty; reduced postnatal growth; and anemia.

The economic impact of the loss of IQ due to lead poisoning is significant as well. A recent study in the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal estimated lost economic productivity due to lead poisoning to be “a total cost of $977 billion of international dollars in low- and middle-income countries”. The health, social, and economic impacts of lead poisoning are devastating, but avoiding risk from lead in paint is something that we can easily address.

Today over 40 countries, including the United States, have passed laws or regulations to ban the use of lead in paints for residential or decorative use. However, many developing countries around the world still have paint with high amounts of lead that can legally be sold for use in places like homes, schools, day cares, and playgrounds. In fact, a recent study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) found that in the nine developing countries studied, seven had some paint samples tested with lead concentrations over 10,000 parts per million (ppm) and four countries had some paint samples tested with lead concentrations over 99,000ppm. By contrast, the US limit is 90ppm. The two countries without such high concentrations both had in place legal limits on lead content in paint. Interestingly, the paints with high lead levels were often side by side on the shelves with paints that would meet the US standards, were of similar cost, and were indistinguishable to consumers.

USEPA is a partner in the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (Global Alliance), an international partnership to prevent exposure to lead from paints containing lead. The Global Alliance is currently focusing its efforts on phasing out the use, sale, and manufacture of lead in new paints, especially for residential and decorative use. This past September, the Global Alliance concluded a successful meeting and two-day workshop teaching countries the elements necessary to put in place legal limits on new residential lead paint. The Global Alliance partners, including EPA, will be working with countries around the world to meet the Global Alliance’s goal of legal limits on the use of lead in new residential paint in all countries by 2020.

Working together with our international partners, EPA is striving to protect children’s health from lead poisoning in paints not only in the United States, but for all children around the world.

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