Ban on lead paint is in the pipeline

Tony Carnie

Health Department spokesman Solly Mabotha said yesterday it was clear that a voluntary agreement with the local paint industry to restrict the use of the toxic heavy metal was "not working as it should".

He was commenting on weekend reports about further discoveries of very high levels of lead in the paint and coatings for several children's toys, as well as long-standing concerns by the SA Medical Research Council (MRC) about the poisoning of young children and adults from lead-based paint.

The decision to regulate lead-based paints was taken earlier this year following a study by MRC researcher Angela Mathee confirming the continued use of leaded paints, despite a 1970s agreement with the South African Paint Manufacturers' Association to restrict the use of lead.

According to the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a public interest group based in Washington DC, children under the age of six are most vulnerable to lead poisoning because their brains and neurological systems are not fully developed.

In a special booklet distributed to key decision-makers in Johannesburg during the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, the alliance warned that most cases of lead poisoning went undetected because of a lack of public awareness and regular blood tests by health authorities.

Overdue

And last year, during the World Congress on Environmental Health in Durban, MRC researcher Angela Mathee said a public awareness campaign on toxic lead hazards was "long overdue", along with the provision of blood-lead testing facilities.

She welcomed the government's decision to phase out leaded petrol, but warned that legislation to ban lead in paint was equally urgent.

The MRC has found very high levels of lead in children during blood tests in several parts of the country - with some of the highest levels recorded in Alexandra township in Johannesburg.

Mabotha told The Mercury that plans to regulate lead paint were "at an advanced stage" but he could not say when draft laws would be gazetted for comment.

"What I can say is that the process is under way and we should see regulations in the near future."

A spokesman for the South African Paint Manufacturers' Association could not be reached for comment.