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Exposure to lead poses serious health risks

A painter gives an office block in Nakuru a facelift on March 2, 2017. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | NMG
A painter gives an office block in Nakuru a facelift on March 2, 2017. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | NMG   

The Economist of February 24, 2018 carried a story headlined, “Painted Into a Corner,” which detailed the grave dangers of leaded paint.

The article says that although “in 2009, at a UN global health assembly, every country committed to phase out lead paint by 2020, only a dozen have introduced bans- bringing the total number of countries that have them to 68.”

According to the article, Kenya introduced a ban on lead on February 16, 2018, thus becoming the fourth sub- Saharan African nation to do so after South Africa, Cameroon and Tanzania.

The gazette notice of February 16, 2018, however, did not contain the ban. So far what has happened is the commencement of a policy process on the standards concerning the ban that were gazetted on January 26, 2018. With this, it can be said that Kenya is getting closer to banning the manufacture and sale of leaded paints and varnishes in the country.

On January 31, 2018, just a few days after the gazette notice, stakeholders (Kenya Paint Manufacturers, policy makers and civil society) came together in Nairobi to deliberate on total eradication of leaded paint and how to speed up the implementation process of the new standards in Kenya with the hope of attaining the UN goal of lead free paints by 2020.

Lead is usually contained in paints or water pipes and is a dangerous metal. Children are more vulnerable to lead as they absorb 4 to 5 times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at high levels of exposure, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death.
The organisation adds that children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioural disorders.

At lower levels of exposure that cause no obvious symptoms, and that previously were considered safe, lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems.

People get lead poisoning through inhaling particles produced from leaded gasoline, stripping leaded paint from the walls, and during smelting process. The more common source of lead poisoning is household activities that precipitate inhalable particles to children who may discover its sweet taste and ingest it.

The other source is through ingestion of lead-contaminated dust, food served in lead-glazed or lead-soldered containers (virtually every household has these cutlery in their homes) and water from leaded pipes.

Use of some cosmetics can also be a source of lead in our bodies. The tragedy is that we rarely check for lead levels in blood to know what levels we have ingested.

The ban on production and sale of leaded paint is not sufficient without mechanisms to deal with huge stockpiles of the product that is being sold to unsuspecting consumers.

The government should ask the manufacturers to recall all inventories from their distributors and start a public campaign to get rid of the paint.

Public awareness will help prospective customers to ask the right questions. As I wrote this article, I called several manufacturers and indeed some are manufacturing leaded paint.

The good news is that the switch-over cost from lead to lead-free paint is not significant to bring about resistance. There is no motivation to continue to produce poison.

However, it is necessary to create incentives for manufacturers to abandon and recall what is already out there. This must be followed by strict enforcement of the standards to ensure that the country terminates the production, sale, import, export, and use of leaded paints.

Former Minneapolis mayor Elizabeth Betsy Hodges once said, “True public safety requires a collaboration between law enforcement and the community.”

When a child develops learning disabilities as a result of preventable causes, it is a huge cost to the economy. We owe it to ourselves to eliminate a menace like lead, which we now know is harmful to humanity.

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