Special Issue
Lead leads in poisoning
High levels of lead in domestic paints continue to be a major health hazard in our country. Dr Thuppil Venkatesh, Principal Advisor, Quality Council of India, points out that the serious problem has a simple solution: everyone concerned needs to take timely action to prevent one of the greatest disasters before mankind.
ead is one of the toxic heavy metals which is globally considered as the number one environmental and health hazard affecting people of all age groups. It has deleterious effects on all organs in the human body. Lead poisoning is widely recognized as a major public health problem all over the world. Children and women are found most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Unlike other health hazards, lead poisoning is hundred per cent preventable.

The George Foundation study, in which the author was the Director of the four year “Project Lead-Free” in India (in January 1997, the George Foundation launched a lead and anemia screening programme in India. The project was initiated in Bangalore and its vicinity, and subsequently expanded to several other major cities across India), found that more than 51.3 per cent of children in Indian metros below 12 years of age have their blood lead levels above 10 ug/dl. Blood lead levels above 10ug/dl is known to reduce the IQ during growth and developmental phase of children. An average reduction of IQ to an extent of 4-6 units on a scale is known to result in the economic damage to countries to the tune of over Rs 600 crore annually by 2015. At one point of time it was believed that the major source of lead in our environment was from leaded gasoline. After unleaded gasoline was introduced, the major source of lead are based paints used at homes.

The US Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes lead as the single most significant environmental health threat to children. In fact, lead poisoning in children is linked to:
  • Developmental delays
  • Learning disabilities
  • Behaviour problems


It is possible to implement source control measures and other required preventive actions to bring down environmental lead within “acceptable limits” within a 15-year timeframe.

— From White
Paper presented to
policy-makers in
developing countries
by The George
After the introduction of unleaded gasoline in India in March 2000, another major source of lead was identified: lead-based paints. The per capita consumption of paints in India is only around one-fifteenth of developed countries as on date. Of late, there has been unprecedented boom in the housing sector which is expected to satisfy the demand for over 30 million new homes; hence, the increased use of lead-based paints. It is unfortunate that the common man, building contractors or even hardware shop owners are not aware of the availability of lead-free paints in the country.
Limits on the concentration of lead (ppm) in new paints for household use
Country/region Limit
China 600 ppm (total 7 90ppm (leachable) (GAQSC 2001,2003)
India 1000 ppm (total) - Voluntary (BIS 2004)
Singapore 600 ppm (total) (NEA 2004)
South Africa 600 ppm (total) - (DOH, 2008)
United States 90 ppm (total) -effective Aug 14, 2009 (prior limit 600 ppm (total) (CPSIA, 2008)

Very little attention has been paid in most of the developing countries to the role of leaded paints and its impact on the environment and health. A study report by the author during 2006 on the analysis of lead in paints in China, India and Malaysia revealed that over 80 new paints from these countries used in homes had very high lead levels — in fact, exceeding the levels of 1000 ppm.

The elevated lead levels in paints were found mainly due to non-implementation of regulation and enforcement in these countries. From 2006 till today, more than 300 new paints have been added in these countries in which the lead content has been found to be, once again, very high.

Though there is a need for the ban of lead-based paints all over the world, which has been emphasized time and again to prevent exposure and associated sicknesses, developing countries have not taken this seriously. In India, for example, lead-based paints were found in the homes of three children whose blood lead levels were at least 40 ug/dl. In a report on dust lead levels in Delhi, homes had dust with lead levels of 31 per cent. That incidentally exceeds the current US limit of 40 ug/sq ft. The window sill samples exceeded the current US limit of 250 ug/sq ft. In USA, lead in paint at 90 ppm (total) has been made effective from August 2009 (the prior limit of 600 ppm is no longer in use).

A number of government Ministries need to be involved in the many activities of a lead control programme: energy and transportation ministries for unleaded fuel in automobiles, environment and labour ministries for environment, health ministry for prevention and treatment measures, law and justice ministry for enforcement, and so on.

— From White Paper
presented to policymakers in developing countries by The George Foundation

Lead concentrations of new enamel household paints by country and percentages equal to or exceeding 90 and 600 ppm, dry weight (n = 371).
Country # of samples Average Geometric mean Median % 90 % 600
Singapore 41 6988 163 55 43.9 36.6
Peru 10 11,550 3259 5711 90.0 80.0
Indonesia 11 14,770 2642 3474 81.8 72.7
China 64 15,070 169 34 43.8 32.8
Nigeria 25 15,750 7341 5760 96.0 96.0
Thailand 18 19,410 7281 15,170 100.0 88.9
Malaysia 72 24,510 769 614 59.7 50.0
Seychelles 28 24,880 1167 2527 67.9 60.7
Egypt 20 26,200 1338 4717 65.0 65.0
India 72 29,660 4801 9630 87.5 81.9
Ecuador 10 31,960 2178 13,460 70.0 60.0
Lead from paint dust can result in increased blood lead levels especially in children who have greater ability to absorb lead when compared to adults. Blood lead levels of around 150 ug/dl can result in death.
Lead concentrations (ppm dry weight) of new enamel household paints by colour
and percentages equal to or exceeding 90 and 600 ppm ( n= 372).
Country # of samples Average Geometric mean Median % 90 % 600
White 57 1547 101 53 45.6 33.3
Blue 50 2650 338 825 64.0 52.0
Black 19 4059 503 428 68.4 47.4
Brown 16 9228 208 67 43.8 37.5
Red 66 17,540 2089 4765 78.8 74.2
Green 50 21,660 4195 19,180 78.0 78.0
Orange 9 42,840 17,520 35,280 88.9 88.9
Yellow 100 47,250 3633 38,960 73.0 66.0

Dust from a small patch of three layers of lead-based paint covering 20 to 30 sq cm can increase the blood lead levels to over 50 ug/dl.The recent trend and the availability of technology for the production of lead free paints in India is evidenced by the fact that a multinational company sold paint with high lead content through January 2007 but changed to low lead content towards the latter part of 2007 thereby indicating that a major change is possible. Recent findings indicate that almost one-third of the paint samples manufactured in India would meet the new US standard for new paints of 90 ppm suggesting that the technology is already available in at least 11 out of 12 countries to produce low lead enamel paints for domestic use.

The results of average lead concentrations for new enamel paints in India has been found to be as high as 85000 ppm in yellow paints with a much lower concentration of 1330 ppm in white paints. On an average of 73 per cent of the paint brands tested in the various countries including India, at least one sample with a lead concentration that was at least 600 ppm was found. Only a slightly smaller percentage had at least one sample with a much higher concentration, 10,000 ppm.

When we look closely at the varying concentration of lead in paints in India and the corresponding cost, one can notice that 10 per cent increase in price would result in a reduction in lead concentration that varies between 600 to 2000 ppm. The nonavailability of low lead paints for our general public is mainly due to lack of awareness amongst consumers. Results of the recent studies by the multi-country study on lead in paints in which the author is a co-worker, suggest that the achievement of a worldwide ban on the use of lead in paints is technically achievable.
Limits on the concentration of lead (ppm) in new paints for household use
Company Id Average lead level ppmb Average price of
1L (rupees)c
China 31,500 167
India 48,400 152
Singapore 7 155
South Africa 28,700 159
Lead concentrations of new enamel household paints by country and percentages equal to or exceeding 90 and 600 ppm, dry weight (n = 371).
Country Number of paint
Number with
at least one sample with lead
10,000 ppm
Number with at
least one sample with lead greater than or equal to 600 ppm
China 19 10 10
Ecuador 2 2 2
Egypt 4 4 4
India 9 6 7
Indonesia 4 2 2
Malaysia 14 11 11
Nigeria 5 5 5
Peru 2 2 2
Seycheller 2 2 2
Singapore 7 2 4
Taiwan 3 3 3
Thailand 7 5 5
Total 78 54 (69%) 57 (63%)
Significant reduction in exposures to lead can be
achieved costeffectively through preventive measures.
In many industrialized countries, a decrease of over
70 per cent in the average blood lead level of the
population was achieved in
less than 20 years.

— From White Paper
presented to policymakers
in developing
countries by The
George Foundation

What we need to do on an urgent basis in our country is enforce GMP in the paint industry with appropriate guidelines. The accreditation standard and certification for these companies complying with the global standards have to be made mandatory as most of our products are also exported. The main purpose of compiling the research data is to sensitize all those concerned to take adequate and appropriate timely action to prevent the oncoming disaster.

The data produced along with the article is from scientific papers published by the authors in international scientific journals along with co-workers from USA, Malaysia, Singapore, Nigeria, Egypt and Seychelles

  1. “Lead in new enamel household paints from Asia, Africa and South America” by Scott Clark, Rampal, Venkatesh Thuppil, Sandy Roda, Paul Succop, Willium Menrath, Chin K Chin, Eugenious O Adebamowo, Oluwole A Agbede, Mynepalli, Sridhar, Clement Adebamowo, Yehia Zakaria, Amal El-Saftry and Rana Shinde, Jiefei Yu; Environmental research (August 2009).
  2. Clark C S Rampal K Thuppil V, Chen, C, Clark, R. Roda S 2006. The lead content of currently available new residential paints in several Asian countries; Environmental research 102. 9-12