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UNEP Finds More than Half of All Countries Have Binding Lead Limits or Are Drafting Laws

An update published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights national efforts to limit and eliminate lead paint. No level of lead exposure is considered safe, and even relatively low exposure levels can cause serious and irreversible neurological damage. The 2020 'Update on the Global Status of Legal Limits on Lead in Paint' reports that, as of 31 December 2020, 79 countries (41% of all countries) had legally binding controls to limit the production, import, and sale of lead paints. Another 13% (26 countries) were in the process of drafting laws.

In 2020: Colombia, Lebanon, and Viet Nam established new lead paint laws; China updated an existing law; and the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the status of Ecuador, Pakistan, and Qatar in its database to reflect existing laws.

While the removal costs of existing lead paint can be substantial, the cost is low to eliminate lead compounds in new decorative paints.

The update notes that lead can permanently damage the brain and nervous system, resulting in decreased IQ and increased behavioral problems. It can also cause anemia, increase the risk of kidney damage and hypertension, and impair reproductive functions. Young children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable. The negative impacts on children’s developing brains also have significant economic costs, including health care costs, productivity losses, and intellectual disability. While the cost of removing existing decorative lead paint from surfaces in homes, schools and other buildings can be substantial, the economic cost is low for eliminating the use of lead compounds in new decorative paints.

Countries that have enacted laws to limit the lead content in paint have generally followed one of two approaches. Of the 79 countries with lead paint laws, 40 have established a single regulatory limit on the total or soluble lead concentration in paint. These existing lead limits range from 90 ppm to 1,000 ppm or higher. The Model Law and Guidance for Regulating Lead in Paint recommends a 90 ppm concentration limit.

The other 39 countries have established chemical-specific regulatory limits based on the management of risks of individual lead compounds used as additives in paint, of which 31 have adopted the EU's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical (REACH) regulation on lead compounds in paints. EU REACH restricts the addition of certain specific lead compounds to paints intended for supply to the general public, based on risk management assessments. Both approaches have been effective in limiting the lead content in paint.

The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Global Environment Facility (GEF) project on lead paint convened virtual consultations and meetings at the both country and regional levels. The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint (Lead Paint Alliance), jointly led by UNEP and the WHO and established in 2011 to promote the global phase-out of lead paint, sponsored webinars for policymakers and industry. The webinars addressed, among others, understanding the harms of lead paint exposure, developing regulations based on the Model Law, working with industry on testing and reformulation efforts, lessons learned from paint reformulation, and lead paint testing. UNEP convened four online discussions of the Lead in Paint Community of Practice. [Publication: Update on the Global Status of Legal Limits on Lead in Paint] [SDG Knowledge Hub story on 2019 Update]

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