Imported toys & decorative items from developing nations show toxic levels of lead

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Lead-based paint on a wall
Toxic lead-based paint can be found on much more than just the walls of old buildings. It can be found on toys as well as decorative items being exported for sale from certain developing countries, outlines a new researched study sponsored by the UN Environment Programme. Image: Abby Lanes

(WNN) United Nations New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS:  Outlining the dangers of decorative paint on imported objects that also come with a dangerously high lead count, the UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme has released a new study on ‘unsafe’ paint worldwide.  Key to the study is the research work of 700 organizations dedicated to the public’s protection under environmental safety.

With new findings that have revealed an astonishingly high level of toxic lead in enamel decorative paint, the UNEP documented samples from a wide group of developing countries.

What they found was extremely high levels of lead in many items including toys, furniture and decorative products, hospitals and building structures. High levels of lead is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children.

Found in paint in numerous regions where poverty often causes the cheapest decorative enamel paint available to be used, the UNEP report shows how lead exposure can happen easier than people realize.  Numerous items tested showed lead contamination in decorative enamel paint to be over 90 parts per million, an amount that is currently outlawed in the United States and Canada.

“Despite what is known about the health risks arising from lead paint, such paints are still widely available and used in many countries for decorating the interiors and exteriors of homes. It can also be found in paint in public buildings such as schools and hospitals, as well as on toys, toy jewellery, glazes, furniture, and playground equipment,” outlines the new UNEP report.

Tests for the lead-based paint was carried out through UNEP funding in partnership with  GAELP – Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint as sample tests were provided by a global network of more than 700 public interest non-governmental organizations working together for the elimination of persistent organic pollutants, known as IPEN.

“To carry this out, IPEN formed partnerships with NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] in Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, and Uruguay,” outlines the new report on toxic lead exposure.

This careful study was conducted in regions where the common use of lead-based decorative enamel paint has never been fully scrutinized. In the last few years children’s toy safety has also been the target of research in the United States and other industrial countries. Numerous manufacturers, especially small operations in developing countries who are attempting to save money in manufacturing their products by ‘cutting corners’, use cheaper lead-based paint on children’s toys.

Besides its cheaper cost, use of lead-based paint has been preferred because of its ability to stand up to rust and constant wear-and-tear. This in fact was the paint of choice for many of the steel bridges in the United States. There are about 225,000 structural steel highway and railroad bridges in the U.S., and it is estimated that 90,000 still have lead paint, outlined OSHA, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2007.

“In this day and age, it is quite frankly breathtaking that parents painting their child’s nursery a cheerful red, or handing their child a colourful toy may, through no fault of their own be exposing that child to a pernicious and damaging toxin: lead,” said Nick Nuttall, UNEP’s Spokesperson and Director of Communications.

With dangers for children and adults who have been exposed to lead poisoning, the medical test for lead toxicity can only be made through a sample of blood.

“Venous Blood Lead Level (BLL) testing is the most useful screening and diagnostic test for recent or ongoing lead exposure as opposed to past exposures,” says the CDC – Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because of its soft features as a metal lead was one of the first metals to be used on Earth as early as the Bronze Age, dating back to the 4th millennium BC. Later during the Greco‐Roman era, alcoholic spirits consumed for drinking were stored in vessels that contained lead. This caused an early life for many of the Greco-Roman society’s most affluent members.

“Lead poisoning remains the number one environmental health concern for children globally and led paint is a major flashpoint for children’s potential lead poisoning,” says Dr. Maria Neira Director of Public Health and Environment for WHO – World Health Organization.

Today though some of the most severe victims of lead poisoning include those who work in decorative or toy manufacturing industries that use lead-based paint.

“This report seeks to catalyze action by raising awareness among Governments, manufacturers and consumers not just that the problem exists, but that there are cheap and safe alternatives to lead already in use that can lift this health burden in a very short time,” says UNEP Spokesperson Nick Nuttal.

After the National Lead Company finally admitted that lead was a poison in 1921, after a long running public campaign said “Lead helps to guard your health,” the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations banned the use of white-lead interi0r paint in 1922. At the time the U.S. refused to join the ban. The U.S. outlawed the use of lead-based paint in households in 1978.

Toy and decorative item exporters might not be the only ones to blame with paint that is currently used for export items that are high in lead. Many of the labels for these paints do not mention anywhere that the paint is actually high in lead.

In 2011 a study conducted by environmental health expert and public advocate Perry Gottesfeld, with his colleagues in Cameroon, found extremely high levels of lead in paint that was sold to poor nations. This paint was actually coming from paint manufacturers in the Cameroon region and beyond. According to Gottesfeld, other paint manufacturers and suppliers include operations located in the Ivory Coast, Greece and the United Arab Emirates. Gottesfeld is the founder of Occupational Knowledge International, which works to identify, monitor and mitigate environmental and occupational exposures to hazardous materials in order to protect public health and the environment.


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