From a small factory in Callao, Peru, paint maker Universal Colors had churned out industrial paints and coatings laden with lead for over two decades. The element is commonly used in paints to speed drying and improve durability. But those paints can be toxic if ingested, as they sometimes are by children.

That is why Universal Colors joined a novel project that helps smaller paint makers in developing countries pilot test the reformulation of their products. The effort fell under the auspices of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, a voluntary framework hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and was financed by the Global Environment Facility.

By 2022, three years after joining the programme, Universal Colors began producing paints with less than 90 parts-per-million of lead, an internationally recognized safe limit.

“Nowadays people are more conscious about their health and the products they are in contact with,” says Erika Tirado Espinoza, Universal Colors Business Development Manager. “Our team is proud to be part of such an important project.”

Universal Colors is one of more than 20 paint makers in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Nigeria, Jordan, and China that have piloted the reformulation of their paint in recent years.

The push is part of a larger global effort to rein in the amount of lead in a range of products. Globally, lead poisoning claims almost 1 million lives a year.

“For centuries, humanity has been grappling with the toxic fallout of lead,” said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, the Director of UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division. “We’ve made significant progress in limiting its use in recent years but it remains a serious threat around the world, especially in developing countries.”

Exposure to lead, even at low levels, can lead to serious and irreversible damage to the neurological and cardiovascular systems. Lead, which enters the body through inhalation, ingestion, and touch, is a cumulative toxin and is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women. Lead can also enter water, air, and soil, and has damaging impacts on ecosystems, animals, and birds, often building up in the food chain.

Still, it is used in a range of products, from paints and coatings to buildings, batteries, and toys, across the developing world. Even in developed countries with bans in place, lead poses dangers as a legacy chemical found in old buildings and products.

Lead in paint is a major source of exposure. It is often added to interior and exterior paint that is used in homes, schools, and other buildings, as well as on furniture, playgrounds, and toys, to speed up drying, increase durability and enhance visual properties.

But a growing number of countries are pushing back against its use.

Between 2012 and 2023, the number of nations with legally binding controls on lead paint increased to 93 from 52.

That shift has been supported by the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, which is led by UNEP and the World Health Organization (WHO). The alliance supports countries in legislating lead in paint controls, including by promoting a model law that nations can draw from when crafting lead-related regulations. Teams behind the paint reformulation project coordinated with the Alliance in helping 21 countries enact legislation to limit the use of lead in paint, and draft laws are pending in another 19.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a grouping of 15 nations, has also developed a draft standard that would limit lead in paint to below 90 parts per million. Following approval by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers in July, the standard went to member states for adoption.

“By limiting the concentration of lead in paint, we will protect the environment and people, in particular children and women, from cancer and other diseases,” says Yao Bernard Koffi, Head of the Environment and Climate Change Division at the ECOWAS Commission.

Advocates trying to end the use of lead in paint have been buoyed by the element’s disappearance from another common product: fuel. In 2021, the global use of lead in petrol officially came to an end, the result of decades of lobbying by the UNEP-backed Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. The phasing out of lead from fuel saves an estimated 1.2 million lives a year.

Just like leaded fuel bans have prevented millions of deaths while saving trillions for the global economy, lead paint laws can help save millions more lives while avoiding substantial healthcare expenses and other costs, said Aggarwal-Khan.

The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, a voluntary multi-sector policy framework, has guided the international use of chemicals, like lead, for more than 15 years.

This week a range of representatives are gathering in Bonn, Germany for the International Conference on Chemicals Management, where they are negotiating a successor to the agreement. Along with lead paint, observers say a new framework could help address the health problems caused by many other products that contain lead, including batteries, pottery, and spices.

“This week, the global community is stepping up to accelerate action in tackling the planetary crisis of chemical pollution,” said Aggarwal-Khan. “The sound management of chemicals and waste is essential to sustainable development, and contributes significantly to efforts to counter the climate crisis and preserve biodiversity.”

As talks on a successor to the chemicals management framework continue, groups on the ground say raising awareness about the dangers of lead in paint is crucial to ending its use. In Peru, an awareness-raising campaign was conducted alongside the paint reformulation project, which involved four companies. Backers designed a mascot called Pibi – ‘Pb’ is the chemical symbol for lead – that participated in awareness-raising activities in universities and schools. That made the initiative “more fun for students,” says Maricé Salvador, Director of Grupo GEA – Circular Economy and Innovation, and a focal point for the project to eliminate lead in products in Peru.

Efforts like those are starting to change minds, says Tirado Espinoza from the paint maker Universal Colors.

“Lead in paint has become taboo,” she says. “Every time we talk about the project to our customers, they feel they are being educated in something they never heard of.”

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To fight the pervasive impact of pollution on society, UNEP launched #BeatPollution, a strategy for rapid, large-scale and coordinated action against air, land, and water pollution. The strategy highlights the impact of pollution on climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and human health. Through science-based messaging, the campaign showcases how transitioning to a pollution-free planet is vital for future generations.

This story has been developed within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project ID: 9771 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This project is funded by the GEF, implemented by UNEP, and executed by the SAICM Secretariat.