Lead Work Area Warning sign
    (Getty)

    • South Africa has started a one-year countdown to what amounts to a total ban on the use of lead in paint.
    • On 22 October 2022, paint with lead above a background level will become a Group II hazardous substance in SA, the health minister decreed on Friday.
    • Rules limiting the amount of paint in lead were implemented in 2010 – with lots of exceptions.
    • Lead is ludicrously bad for children in particular, and there is strong statistical evidence that it affects entire societies through higher levels of violence and crime.
    • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

    In one year, on 22 October 2022, a new set of rules will come into operation around lead in paint, health minister Joe Phaahla announced in the Government Gazette on Friday.

    The rules themselves are technical, shifting the classification of leaded paint under SA's half-century-old Hazardous Substances Act, and changing a legal definition of "leaded paint".

    However, the impact of those rules is blunt, and represents a landmark victory for decades of lobbying: an effective total ban on the use of lead in paint.

    That should stop lead from cropping up in homes and schools, on playground equipment, and in the coatings of toys, all places it continues to be found when investigators look for the source of lead detected in the blood of young children.

    In those children – a worryingly high number in South Africa – the result is a nightmarish combination of physical and behavioural symptoms including aggression and learning difficulties. On a broader level, lead poisoning has been strongly linked with crime, with the implication that South Africa should start seeing a sharp decline in crime starting in 2024 because of the end of the use of leaded petrol in 2006.

    After the elimination of that huge source of lead in the environment, experts turned more of their attention to lead in paint.

    With effect from mid-2010, South Africa declared “leaded paint” to be a Group I hazardous substance – but with several exceptions. Paints with lead at a level below 600 parts per million were not affected, and there were explicit exceptions for paint used as industrial coatings, garden equipment, and even model aircraft.

    Those paints were supposed to come with warnings such as “Do not apply on toys”, to keep them away from children.

    The new rules, which will automatically come into force unless changed in the meanwhile, apply to paint with lead above 90 parts per million (0.009%, instead of 0.06%) – and to all "paints and coating materials", with careful definitions attached to eliminate loopholes.

    Setting the limit so low "is tantamount to a ban on the addition of lead to paint", says Angela Mathee, the director of the Medical Research Council's environmental health research unit, who has long led efforts to study the effects and source of lead in children. "There can still be background lead, it is a contaminant that is everywhere, but you can't add it anymore."

    The South African Paint Manufacturing Association (Sapma) was not immediately available for comment, but has previously said local makers of paint were already keeping to levels of paint below 90 parts per million, in order to satisfy foreign customers and regulators. Yet work by the likes of Mathee kept finding high levels of lead in paint where children could get to it – and in new paint found on shelves. One 2012 study found dangerously high levels of lead in 40% of samples of paint on sale, often without any labelling.

    A blanket ban, eliminating imported "industrial" paint that can be repackaged as a cheap alternative for consumer use, may finally change that.

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