Lead Paint Background

Cameroon Lead Paint Investigation

OK International, along with our partners at the Research and Education Centre for Development (CREPD), completed an investigation on lead paint being sold in Cameroon. The report “Lead Concentrations in New Residential Paints in Cameroon” found that 67% of new paints tested contained lead above the U.S. regulatory level of 90 ppm. Only two products of approximately 300 being sold in 76 retail and wholesale outlets in the country had any indication on the label that lead was present. None of the lead paint products included a warning on the label. CREPD is now working to encourage the Cameroon government to regulate lead levels in new paints.

Is lead still used in paints?

While developed countries have implemented standards to regulate the use of lead in paint, much of the new paint currently sold in most countries contains high levels of lead. OK International published one of the first studies along with our Indian partners at Toxics Link in 2008 on lead levels in paints in India that triggered the largest companies there to reformulate their residential paint products. Despite some success, recent studies examining lead concentrations in new paints in over 40 developing countries demonstrate that most of the paints tested exceed the U.S. standard of 90 ppm. The following is a list of countries where testing conducted since 2005 has found that a substantial portion of new paints contain lead compounds:

  • Argentina
  • Azerbaijan
  • Armenia
  • Bangladesh
  • Belarus
  • Brazil
  • Cameroon
  • Chile
  • China
  • Columbia
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • Ghana
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Ivory Coast
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kenya
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Lebanon
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Nepal
  • Nigeria
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Russia
  • Senegal
  • Seychelles
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Tunisia
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates

Additional Countries Known to Export Products with Lead Paint:

  • Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • Morocco
  • Pakistan
  • Trinidad
  • Vietnam

In addition to these products being sold for application on the interior and exterior of homes, lead paint is commonly used on steel structures (e.g., bridges), vehicles and consumer products (e.g., children's toys). Even where lead concentrations in paint are regulated, there are typically exceptions for commercial or industrial use.

More than 2.5 billion people live in countries where lead paint is still sold for residential use!

New Guidance on Childhood Lead Poisoning (October 2021)

Any exposure to lead is potentially harmful for a child as there is no known “safe” level. In October 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced it would change its policy on childhood lead poisoning to prioritize children with elevated blood lead levels equal to or greater than 3.5 µg/dl. The agency previously defined the reference value as a blood lead level of 5 µg/dl. This change will encourage local health departments to provide environmental testing and public health services to children exposed at or above this level to identify and address sources of exposures before they cause harm.

The CDC recommends these services be provided for the most highly exposed children with elevated blood lead levels above the reference value representing the top 2.5% of all children in the U.S. However, many states have still not lowered their blood lead action level to respond to poisoned children in accordance with CDC guidance since the last update in 2012.

Repeated studies have demonstrated that at these exposure levels, children's school performance and intellectual capacity are irreversibly impacted. In adults, blood lead levels in this range are also associated with hypertension and are a significant contributor to heart disease and stroke. At higher exposure levels kidney disease and damage to the gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems occurs.

Lead Paint Hazards

People are exposed to lead in paint from various routes. Buildings painted with lead paint either on the interior or exterior have higher concentrations of lead in the dust. Children are most susceptible to exposure as they have frequent hand-to-mouth contact and play close to the ground where paint dust collects. Homes with lead paint on the exterior often have excessive lead levels in soil found adjacent to the structure from weathering and the dust generated from previous painting projects. This lead is then tracked into the home and contributes to the dust contamination. Children may also be exposed to lead from paint on toys, furniture, playground equipment, and other products. Workers are exposed from manufacturing lead paint, products made with lead paint, and more commonly from disturbing lead paint during construction and painting activities.

Even if lead is eliminated from all new paint, millions of homes will still contain lead hazards for centuries. Dust released from friction and impact surfaces and contaminated soil will persist in the environment for years. In the U.S. where paint containing more than 600 ppm of lead was banned for residential use since 1978, approximately 185,000 children still have blood lead levels (BLL) that exceed 10 µg/dL. This is the beginning level of concern according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.

Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint

In order to minimize harmful human exposures, OK International is working in coordination with other non-governmental organizations, governments and industry leaders around the world on a Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. While a small number of countries have national laws and programs on lead in paint, these products remain unregulated in most countries. In addition, there is a need for international cooperation to disseminate information and to standardize labeling. Many developing countries may look to the alliance for model legislation that can help them address lead paints. See the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint’s guidance on regulatory frameworks.

The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint had its first meeting in Geneva, Switzerland from May 26-28, 2010. The goal of the alliance is to prevent childhood exposure to lead via paints and minimize occupational exposure to lead in paint by phasing out the manufacture and sale of paints containing lead. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization jointly serve as the secretariat of the voluntary global partnership. Since the initial meeting the Global Alliance has continued to make slow progress due to resource constraints. However, the Global Alliance has agreed on the definition of “lead paint”, as any paint (to include varnish, lacquer, stain, enamel, glaze, primer or coating) and indicates that paint without added lead compounds has a lead concentration less than 90 ppm (parts per million).

Substitutes for lead in paint

Substitutes for lead-based pigments have been available for over one hundred years and titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are commonly used for this purpose. In most countries where lead paint is commonly sold for residential use, competing brands that have eliminated the use of lead pigment and other lead additives are often available within the same price range.

Lead in Toys

Children often place toys and jewelry in their mouths and these items are sometimes swallowed. Products intended for children that are painted with lead based paint are a known source of lead exposure. The State of California reported that 36% of children in the state with lead poisoning had been exposed to at least one lead-containing item. From 2007 to 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued 137 recalls on over ten million imported toys due to excessive lead content underlining the global public health threat posed by unchecked use of lead paints. See the CPSC recall list for toys and jewelry containing excessive amounts of lead.

Levels of lead in paint

Most countries do not have regulatory limitations on lead content in paint or only have voluntary standards in place. In countries with regulations, the permissible lead levels are often inconsistent with a range of excluded applications. Standards between countries vary greatly and some regulations reference soluble lead and others total lead (percent by weight). Table 1 summarizes some countries with national regulations limiting lead content in paint.

Table 1: Lead in Paint Regulations by Country

CountryLegislation / Regulation and YearIncludesExcludesLead Concentration Limit
Brazil 11.762-2008 Housing paint/varnish, paint/varnish intended for children and schools Paint/varnish for agricultural and industrial equipment and structures; traffic signs; automobiles, airplanes; ships; rail vehicles; graphic arts; home wares; metallic furniture; and art supplies. 600 ppm
CanadaProposed amendment to Item 2, Schedule I of the Hazardous Product Act (HPA) -2005 Surface coating applied to furniture and other articles for children N/A 90 ppm
Canada Proposed amendment to Item 9 (a), Schedule I of the HPA -2005 Toys, equipment and other products for use by a child in learning or play N/A 90 ppm
Canada Proposed amendment to Item 18, Schedule I of the HPA -2005 Pencils and artists’ brushes N/A 90 ppm
China GB6675-2003 Paint for toys, school supplies children’s art material N/A 90 ppm (soluble)
China GB18581-2001a Paint intended for indoor decorating of wooden ware N/A 90 ppm (soluble)
China GB18582-2001b Paint intended for interior architectural coatings N/A 90 ppm (soluble)
Mexico NOM-015/1-SCFI/SSA-1994 Paint and ink coatings of items intended for toys and school supplies Paint for objects that, due to size, function, and/or mass, do not pose obvious risk of contact with a child’s mouth 100 ppm (soluble)
Philippines DENR Administrative Order 2013-24 Paints N/A 90 ppm (effective 2017 for decorative paints and 2020 for industrial paints)
Sri Lanka Direction No.36 under Section 12(2)
Consumer Affairs Authority Act No. 09 of 2003
Sept. 30 2011

Toys and accessories for children N/A 90 ppm (soluble) (effective Jan.1, 2013)
Sri Lanka Direction No.36 under Section 12(2)
Consumer Affairs Authority Act No. 09 of 2003
Sept. 30 2011

Emulsion paints for interior and exterior use N/A 90 ppm (effective Jan.1, 2013)
Sri Lanka Direction No.36 under Section 12(2)
Consumer Affairs Authority Act No. 09 of 2003
Sept. 30 2011

Enamel paints and floor paints N/A 600 ppm (effective Jan.1, 2013)
U.S.A PL 110-314 Section 101-2008 Paint for residential application Paint for industrial and commercial use; artist’s paint; and other exemptions 90 ppm (effective August 14, 2009)
U.S.A PL 110-314 Section 101-2008 Paint applied to toys and consumer products designed for children age 12 and younger, furniture for consumer use. Paint applied to appliances, fixtures, or household items 90 ppm (effective August 14, 2009)
U.S.A PL 110-314 Section 101-2008 Total lead content of children’s toys and products (includes non-painted components) designed for children 12 years of age or younger Component parts not accessible to a child through normal and reasonably foreseeable use and abuse of a children’s product 300 ppm (effective August 14, 2009)

Several studies published in scientific journals have demonstrated that alarmingly high levels of lead are common in many new paints sold in developing countries. Table 2 below summarizes the lead levels found in new residential paints since 2006.

Source: Clark, C.S. et al, Lead levels in new enamel household paints from Asia, Africa and South America. Environ. Res. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.envres.2009.07.002.

Table 2: Lead Levels in New Residential Paint (2006-2009)

Country No. of Samples % ≥ 600 ppm % ≥ 5,000 ppm
China 1 9 56 44
China 2 58 50 24
India 3 17 100 82
India 4 69 38 28
Malaysia 5 32 72 62
Nigeria 6 25 96 52
Singapore 7 22 9 0
South Africa 8 25 -- 83
Total / Average 257 60 47


1 Clark CS, Rampal KG, Thuppil V, Chen CK, Clark R, Roda S. The lead content of currently available new residential paint in several Asian countries. Environ Res 2006; 102:9-12.

2 Lin GZ, Peng RF, Chen Q, Wu ZG, Du L. Lead in housing paints: an exposure still not taken seriously for children lead poisoning in China. Environ Res 2009; 109:1-5.

3 Clark CS et al., 2006.

4 Kumar A, Gottesfeld P. Lead content in household paints in India. Sci Total Environ 2008; 407:333-337.

5 Clark CS et al., 2006.

6 Adebamowo EO, Clark CS, Roda S, Agbede OA, Sridhar MKC, Adebamowo CA. Lead content of dried films of domestic paints currently sold in Nigeria. Sci Total Environ 2007; 388:116-120.

7 Clark CS et al., 2006.

8 Mathee A, Rollin H, Levin J, Naik I. Lead in paint: three decades later and still a hazard for African children?. Environ Health Perspect 2007; 115:321-322.