HomeArticlesYou could be buying poisonous lead paint – and no one would...

You could be buying poisonous lead paint – and no one would be charged for it

  • In October, the health department received new equipment to check that imported paint doesn’t contain illegal amounts of lead, a toxic metal that can make people more violent.
  • But an industry association says that although health inspectors have previously found paint in South Africa with too much lead, the government doesn’t take any action against offenders. The health department admits it’s unaware of anyone being punished for breaking the country’s lead paint laws.
  • Experts also warn that the government has no plan for managing or removing lead paint when it finds it applied to buildings.

The health department admitted to Bhekisisa that while health inspectors often find that paint in South Africa contains illegal amounts of lead — a toxic metal that can damage children’s brains — it isn’t aware of paint producers or retailers ever having faced legal action. 

In October, the health department received lead testing equipment worth R 2.2-million to check that imports of paint don’t have more than 0.06% lead (the most allowed by 2009 laws for any household paint sold in the country). 

The eight hand-held lead detectors, called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysers, will be given to 62 trained Port Health officials to stop paint with illegal lead levels from coming into the country (whether it’s applied to something or in a tin), said the national health department’s spokesperson, Foster Mohale. 

This is in the run-up to new draft legislation that, if put in place, would cut the legal threshold for lead in new paint to 0.009%. This is less than a sixth of the original limit and would bring South Africa’s regulations in line with international guidelines for lead paint. The new regulations would apply to all paints, including those used in industrial settings. 

The announcement that the rules might change was made in October 2021. The health department’s legal team is currently working on including public comment into the regulations, before they are sent to the state’s advisors for approval. Mohale says the process could take up to three months before the regulations are published as law. 

But industry experts, including the South African Paint Manufacturers Association (Sapma), have a longstanding worry that despite the government’s investments in testing equipment and tightening the law, very little has been done to enforce existing regulations. 

Municipal and provincial health inspectors have, for instance, been using XRF analysers to monitor lead in paint on local goods since 2015. Inspectors would point the gun-like scanner at an object and the device would show how much lead is on the surface covering, explains Angela Mathee, the chief specialist scientist at the South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) environment and health research unit.

If they detect illegal lead levels in paint (and it’s confirmed with a laboratory test), Mohale says they’re allowed to confiscate the item or product, limit its supply or take the paint maker to court.  

Sapma said in a statement last year however that the government regularly finds high levels of lead in paint readings taken at hardware shops yet no legal action seems to be taken against rulebreakers “who arrogantly flaunt — and are still flaunting — the country’s laws”.

What makes lead dangerous?

Lead is a heavy metal that has, for many years, been added to paint to make it look brighter and last longer. Because of its toxic effects, however, some countries placed legal limits on its use going back to 1909, when Austria, Belgium and France banned lead-based interior paints (100 years before South Africa took action). 

People who consume lead — whether through eating it, touching it or breathing in lead dust — can develop heart disorders, kidney problems, tiredness and memory loss, especially as the metal builds up in the body over time.  

Because children explore the world by putting things in their mouths, they are more likely to consume lead that might be in flakes of old paint. 

[WATCH] What does lead poisoning do to your kid’s brain?

Children who are exposed to the toxic heavy metal, lead, are more likely to commit violent crime and to get lower scores on intelligence tests as adults. But experts and industry groups say the government isn’t doing enough to manage lead.

And once the metal is in their systems, it can harm their developing brains, hindering their performance at school and increasing antisocial and violent behaviour

In South Africa, researchers have found lead paint on house walls, children’s toys and playground equipment such as slides and see-saws.

In response, the 2009 law was supposed to reduce the amount of lead that kids are exposed to, but years after the new rules kicked in, inspectors still found illegal levels when testing paint on toys, furniture and walls at childcare facilities in Johannesburg, the West Rand and Ekurhuleni. Unpublished research by the national health department and the SAMRC also found that, in 2012, about four in 10 paint samples had lead levels over the legal limit, says Mohale — without any known consequences for the producers.

Good enforcement pays, because it’s cheaper than removing old lead paint 

Not only is the government failing to punish manufacturers when it finds hazardous lead paint, it also has no plan to remove or manage it, experts say. 

“New products are expected to meet the new standards, but old paint in homes and other buildings is not regulated,” explains Rajen Naidoo, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Removing existing leaded paint is expensive because it has to be completely stripped by trained professionals and then disposed of in special waste dumps that can handle hazardous chemicals. A cheaper (but more temporary) solution is to seal lead paint with certain coatings or plastic. 

In December last year, the United States announced plans to beef up measures like this and set aside close to R80-billion to remove or manage lead paint and other lead fixtures (such as pipes) in low-income households.

But this wouldn’t be feasible in South Africa, says Rachel Silverman Bonnifield, a researcher at the Centre for Global Development, where she’s studying global lead exposure.  

She argues that for now, the first action South Africa should take in combating lead paint is to enforce its own laws. 

Bonnifield explains that the cost of removing old lead paint from walls in low- and middle-income countries such as South Africa will probably be out of reach. But what will make a real difference, she says, is “to pass and enforce laws that ban lead in new paint.”

Jesse Copelyn was a health journalist at Bhekisisa between 2022 and 2023.