You can buy toxic lead paint – and no legal action will be taken against the producer or retailer | TBEN


The government regularly finds high levels of lead in paint readings at hardware stores, but no legal action appears to be taken.

  • In October, the health department received new equipment to verify that imported paint does not contain illegal amounts of lead.
  • But according to a trade association, the government does not take action against offenders.
  • Experts warn the government has no plan to manage or remove lead paint.

The health department admitted to Bhekisisa that while health inspectors often find that paint in South Africa contains illegal amounts of lead – a toxic metal that can damage children’s brains – it is unaware of any paint manufacturers or retailers who have ever taken legal action.

In October, the health department received lead testing equipment, worth R2.2 million, to verify that imported paint does not contain more than 0.06% lead (the highest allowed by the 2009 laws for all household paint sold in the country).

The eight portable lead detectors, called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers, will be given to 62 trained Port Health officials to prevent paint with illegal levels of lead from entering the country (whether applied to something or in a can). said National Health Department spokesman Foster Mohale.

This is ahead of a new bill that, if enacted, would lower the legal threshold for lead in new paint to 0.009%. This is less than one-sixth of the original limit and would bring South Africa’s regulations into line with international guidelines for lead paint. The new regulations would apply to all paints, including those used in industrial settings.

READ | South Africa has just announced a total ban on the use of lead in paint – no exceptions

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It was announced in October 2021 that the rules may change.

The health department’s legal team is currently working to incorporate public comment into the regulations before they are sent to state advisers for approval. Mohale says the process could take up to three months before the regulations are published as law.

But industry experts, including the South African Paint Manufacturers Association (Sapma), have long been concerned that despite government investment in testing equipment and tightening of the law, very little has been done to enforce existing regulations.

For example, city and county health inspectors have been using XRF analyzers since 2015 to monitor lead in paint on local goods. Inspectors pointed the gun-like scanner at an object and the device showed how much lead is on the surface covering. explains Angela Mathee, chief scientist at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) environmental health research unit.

If they discover illegal levels of lead in paint (and this is confirmed with a lab test), Mohale says they can confiscate the item or product, limit its supply, or take the paint manufacturer to court.

However, Sapma said in a statement last year that the government regularly finds high levels of lead in paint measurements at hardware stores, but no legal action appears to be being taken against rule breakers “who arrogantly flaunt – and still flaunt – the laws of the land . “.

What makes lead dangerous?

Lead is a heavy metal that has been added to paint for many years to make it look brighter and last longer. However, due to its toxic effects, some countries have placed legal limits on its use, dating back to 1909, when Austria, Belgium and France banned lead-based interior paints (100 years before South Africa took action).

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People who consume lead — whether by eating it, touching it, or inhaling lead dust — can develop heart disease, kidney problems, fatigue, and memory loss, especially as the metal builds up in the body over time.

Since children explore the world by putting things in their mouths, they are more likely to ingest lead found in flakes of old paint.

READ ALSO | Playground paint was found to contain a dangerous amount of lead

And once the metal is in their systems, it can harm their developing brains, hinder their performance in school, and increase antisocial and violent behavior.

In South Africa, researchers have found lead paint on the walls of houses, children’s toys and playground equipment, such as slides and seesaws.

In response, the 2009 law was supposed to reduce the amount of lead children are exposed to, but years after the new rules came into effect, inspectors were still finding illegal levels when testing paint on toys, furniture and walls in childcare facilities in Johannesburg, the West Rand and Ekurhuleni.

Unpublished research from the state health department and the SAMRC also found that in 2012, about four in 10 paint samples had lead levels in excess of the legal limit, Mohale says — without any known impact on producers.

Good maintenance pays off

Not only does the government fail to penalize manufacturers when they find dangerous lead paint, it also has no plan to remove or manage it, experts say.

“New products are expected to meet the new standards, but old paint in homes and other buildings is not regulated,” explains Rajen Naidoo, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Removing existing lead-based paint is expensive because it must be completely removed by trained professionals and then disposed of at special waste landfills that can handle hazardous chemicals. A cheaper (but more temporary) solution is to seal lead paint with certain coatings or plastic.

Last December, the United States announced plans to strengthen such measures and set aside nearly R80 billion for the removal or management of lead paint and other lead fixtures (such as pipes) in low-income households.

READ | This metal destroys children’s brains – SA has no plans to remove it

But this wouldn’t be feasible in South Africa, says Rachel Silverman Bonnifield, a researcher at the Center for Global Development, where she studies global exposure to lead.

She argues that the first action South Africa should take for now in the fight against lead paint is to enforce its own laws.

Bonnifield explains that the cost of removing old lead paint from walls in low- and middle-income countries, such as South Africa, is likely to be out of reach.

But what will really make a difference, she says, is “passing and enforcing laws banning lead in new paint.”

This story was created by the Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism


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