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UNEP Technical Guidelines: Lead Paint Reformulation “Entirely Possible”

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By IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub, June 2, 2022

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has published a final set of technical guidelines on lead paint reformulation, which provides a comprehensive starting point for all stakeholders to learn more about paint reformulation and best practices. The guidelines provide general information on processes and a step-by-step approach to reformulation, including where to find relevant information on alternative raw materials and standards for testing, as well as in-depth case studies.

According to a UNEP press release, lead paint is still used around the world in homes and schools, road marking, glazes, and for its anticorrosive properties. A lack of technical knowledge and lack of awareness regarding the health and environmental hazards of lead and where to source lead-free alternatives, as well as a shortage of lead paint laws in the countries where they are based, mean many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are still producing hazardous lead paint. As 58% of the global paint market share is composed of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), UNEP argues that they must play a key role in reformulation effort. 

Currently, 84 countries have lead paint regulations in place, but the regional disparities are significant: 81% of European countries and 100% in North America have legal limits on lead, compared to only 13% in Africa, 31% in Asia-Pacific, and 42% in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). 

The ‘Lead Paint Reformulation Technical Guidelines’ were developed under a Global Environment Facility (GEF) project titled, ‘Global Best Practices on
Emerging Chemicals Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management,’ to help address both capacity constraints and technical barriers to substituting lead compounds in paints, focusing on the needs of SMEs. In the project context, the guidelines have already informed one paint company’s efforts that led to lead content in paint dropping from more than 34,000 parts per million (ppm) to 56 ppm. In addition, 22 SMEs in Nigeria, Jordan, Peru, China, Ecuador, and Colombia have completed pilot demonstrations using the guidelines. More SMEs are expected to start the process of phasing out lead from their paint production following the guidelines’ publication.

An accompanying document titled, ‘Reformulation is Entirely Possible,’ summarizes: information from the technical guidelines; the findings and recommendations of the reformulation pilot demonstrations; and two case studies of paint manufacturers that have reformulated paint products. The case studies address: reformulation of alkyd anticorrosive paint, used as a solvent-based and water-based industrial coating in China; and reformulation of yellow alkyd paint used to protect metal and wood in Ecuador.

The following findings and recommendations are based on the experience of the paint reformulation pilot demonstrations among more than thirty SMEs under the SAICM GEF project:

  • When drafting lead paint laws, the scope of the paint included should be as broad as possible to cover both water-based and solvent-based paint, as lead pigments are used in both;
  • As some small enterprises lack the necessary equipment to carry out paint performance testing and scale up, lack of grinding equipment can be addressed by using pigment pastes;
  • Suppliers of alternatives should be encouraged to provide their raw materials in smaller markets as well, including through trade fairs or facilitating meetings with SMEs;
  • Meeting with suppliers for technical support before initiating reformulation can result in a better understanding of the process, accelerate selection of the right alternative, and lead to efficient reformulation;
  • As economic costs of reformulation vary, companies should make estimates of the economic costs of reformulation as part of routine business planning; and
  • Compliance deadlines in lead paint laws should allow reasonable time for manufacturers to alter paint formulations and production processes. 

[Publication: Lead Paint Reformulation Technical Guidelines] [Publication: Reformulation is Entirely Possible: Summary of the Lead Paint Reformulation Technical Guidelines and How to Use This Information] [UNEP Press Release