Lead (Pb) compounds have been historically used in paints mainly as a colouring agent, but also for durability and corrosion resistance, and for driers. But lead is toxic and is a poison in any form, as is borne out by the potential hazards that exposure to it (in paints, toys, etc.) can cause. While governments in most developed countries have taken stringent actions against lead in paints, India does not yet have any protocol for labelling and uniform logo. Dr Prashant N. Rajankar of Toxics Link suggests that third-party certification can be an effective option in the immediate run.
World Health Organization (WHO) reviewing the current science on lead toxicity has declared that there is ‘no safe blood lead level’ in humans. According to this document by WHO/UNECE, 2006, ‘Lead is a well-known neurotoxic metal. Impairment of neurodevelopment in children is the most critical lead effect. Exposure in uterus, during breastfeeding, and in early childhood may all be responsible for the effects. Lead accumulates in skeleton and its mobilization from bones during pregnancy and lactation causes exposures to foetus and breast-fed infant. Hence, lifetime exposure of woman before pregnancy is important.’
Because lead accumulates in the body, even exposure to small amounts can contribute to the overall bio-accumulative level of lead in the blood. Apart from neurological damage, there are other hazards such as delayed mental and physical development, attention and learning deficiencies, and hearing problems.
Existing Standards and Certification in India
The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) does not have any certification programme and mandatory standards for lead in paint, although a proposed change to the existing standard would include a criterion of 90 ppm–300 ppm as a mandatory standard that would apply to specific categories of paint available in the Indian market.
The paint business
The Indian household paint market is growing bigger by the day with Asian Paints, Berger, Kansai Nerolac and ICI Dulux being the major shareholders (roughly 60 to 70 per cent) in this segment. As per the latest available studies and information, they are now manufacturing lead-free paints. The rest of the market, for which the lead content in their products is not known, is governed by a large number of small players located across the country. So it is that due to the lack of an appropriate regulatory regime and public information to promote toxic-free products like unleaded paints, neither manufacturers feel compelled to produce toxic-free paints nor are early birds in the lead phase-out sufficiently incentivized, ultimately putting the public at risk.
There is no uniform logo and certification programme in India for lead levels in paint. However, major paint brands available in India are claiming on product labels and in advertising that they are producing ‘lead-free’ decorative paints. Some of these brands carry their own logo/seal on product but do not provide the criteria or any information on testing protocols that they use to justify such claims. Given that there is no uniform definition of lead paint that is being applied, and that some paint ingredients contain trace amounts of lead, these current efforts fail to provide clarity and assurance to consumers.
Labelling and regulations
There is no uniform labelling of paint products, although major players claim to have no added lead in their paint. It is required that manufacturers have a uniform lead-free symbol on products, as well as guidelines for decorative and industrial paints. Lead use in paints is not regulated in India although health effects of lead are well recognized. Most developed countries and many governments have taken stringent actions against it. Lead poisoning is the most serious health hazards among children in India as well as other developing counties. Therefore, it is imperative to enact mandatory national regulations for limiting lead concentrations in paints.
As India does not have any protocol for labelling and uniform logo, third-party certification might be a good option. Such a third-party certification programme will allow paint manufactures and vendors to put a uniform label on their products, certifying that they do not utilize lead pigments, lead dryers and other lead compounds. This will go a long way in buttressing consumer awareness and building trust about the product. While the consumers will have choices, the process will also help to minimize health hazards.
Dr Prashant N. Rajankar is senior programme officer, Chemicals and Health Programme, Toxics Link.
Toxics Link and Consumer Voice are joining hands to highlight the magnitude of the problem at different forums and hope to bring in a standard for lead in household paints which is in line with UN, EU and world levels to minimize health risks for consumers.