Lead poisons many body organs, particularly in children. Once inhaled or ingested, lead is distributed to all parts—including liver, kidneys and brain—before it accumulates in bones and teeth. The stored lead is released from the bones into blood during pregnancy, affecting unborn children.
Young children absorb more lead than adults, but there is no safe level of exposure. Relatively low levels of exposure to lead can cause serious and irreversible brain and nervous system damage. This reduces one’s intelligence quotient (IQ) and school performance while increasing violent behaviour.
The impact of IQ reductions continues throughout life, decreasing the individual’s work performance and economic earnings.
Yet sources and routes of exposure are known.
Until 2000, the main source of lead in many countries was petrol. However, the use of lead to improve the burning of the petrol in cars has been banned in almost all countries.
Lead is also added to paint to improve bright colours, resist corrosion and hasten the drying process. Children are sometimes exposed to lead when they touch painted walls or breathe lead-contaminated dust and put their fingers in their mouths.
Children are exposed to lead-contaminated soil and dust resulting from mining areas, metal recycling and smelting as well as battery recycling.
Other sources include unregulated cosmetics, some toys and certain traditional medicines.
Workers who handle lead-bearing minerals and raw materials are particularly at high risk. In this regard, a working pregnant woman is of particularly serious concern.
Exposure to lead in Malawi and other countries of Southern Africa has been declining since leaded petrol was banned by 2006.
However, a study that measured lead in paint, food and children’s blood in Blantyre indicated that children are still exposed to high levels of lead as many domestic paints still contain high levels of lead despite the prohibition.
This calls for joint international efforts to eliminate lead-based paint.
To eliminate hazards posed by lead-based paints, the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (Gaelp) jointly led by World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) promotes efforts to phase out lead paints and the risks they pose by 2020.
Gaelp seeks to identify manufacturers, formulators and distributers that still deal in paints containing hazardous levels of lead.
Besides safeguarding children, eliminating lead from paint will protect adult employees in the painting, construction, demolition, waste sorting and paint manufacturing industries.
Therefore, it is important for Malawian authorities to cooperate and participate in Gaelp.
In fact, there are cost-effective alternatives for all lead compounds exist to enable reformulation of paints with little impact on their properties and prices.
A study by Unep shows white paints often have the least concentration of lead while yellow, red and other bright paints carry the highest amounts. White paints benefit from the availability of inexpensive white titanium dioxide pigment, which have other desirable properties.
Therefore, paint manufacturers can easily switch to the lead-free alternatives, especially with support and oversight from responsible government agencies. The support could include tax reductions on lead-free raw materials.
It is important for Malawi Government to take the initiative towards the total elimination of lead in paint by setting up an effective regime for monitoring, compliance and enforcement.
The paints should be analysed regularly to ensure those labelled as lead-free are indeed lead-free.
In the cases where levels of lead in paint exceed the permissible levels, the Malawi Bureau of Standards should name and shame as well as prosecute the defiant producers.
Additionally, greater awareness is needed among consumers about the dangers of leaded paint. The civil society, consumer groups and public health protectors should encourage consumers to look for lead-free labels when selecting paints.
It is the duty of all Malawians to join the global fight against leaded paint to protect both children and adults. n