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Editorial: Lead Paint’s Comeback

One of the surest signs of the growing middle class in the developing world — a freshly painted house — is also one of the most worrisome. That’s because too much of that paint is toxic.

There’s no debate about the pernicious effects of lead: Ingesting it, and inhaling its fumes and dust, can cause irreversible brain and nerve damage. No level of exposure is considered safe, which is why lead paint has been banned for most uses in the United States and Europe for decades. Shockingly, however, U.S. and European Union companies continue to manufacture lead paint in developing countries, where few governments regulate the stuff.

If the situation doesn’t change, the developing world will soon have its own toxic legacy to rival that of the West — of lead-coated houses that require expensive remediation, of whole generations set back by lead poisoning.

Tests in about 25 low- and middle-income countries in recent years have found that the majority of the decorative oil-based paints for sale in local markets contained dangerous amounts of lead. In one 2008-2009 study, the average lead concentration of such paint purchased in 11 countries was 23,707 parts per million. The legal limit for residential use in the U.S. is 90 ppm.

When paint contains lead above 90 ppm, it’s an indication the metal was added intentionally — as a pigment, drying agent or corrosion retardant. Safe alternatives exist for each of these functions. Some of the optional pigments are more expensive than lead, but coloring is such a small fraction of the total cost of paint that cans with and without lead sell for the same price. Thus, manufacturers have no good justification for selling the former.

Yet the study identified 54 companies that made the paints with excessive lead concentrations, six of which were subsidiaries of U.S. companies and eight of which were subsidiaries of European or Japanese companies. What’s more, U.S. entities exported at least 11,000 tons of the pigments necessary to make lead paint in 2012, a trade worth $27 million.

Asia is the fastest-growing market for paint, accounting for 35 percent of global sales in 2009. Yet regulatory practices have not kept pace with economic growth, in Asia or elsewhere. Sri Lanka and Brazil are unusual in having passed lead-paint control laws.

Health and environmental advocates can encourage their governments to enact restrictions by testing and publicizing the lead levels in paints sold locally. Advocates would find willing collaborators among nongovernmental groups already working in this sphere.

Naming and shaming companies peddling lead paint is also a valuable tactic. Activists have used it to persuade some companies to remove additives from their products. Less responsible brands could gain market share, but the more companies there are on the side of restricting lead, the greater the odds governments will pass and enforce legislation, creating a level playing field.

Brands that have stopped adding lead should be encouraged to establish a process for third-party certification of unleaded paint. It’s in their interest because it would promote sales of their products. And whether governments act or not, people should be able to paint their houses knowing it won’t poison them or their families.

Bloomberg View