Kenya leads Africa’s efforts in phasing out lead in paint

He smiled and giggled with glitter.

Riziki and Juma had eagerly looked forward to meeting their first baby - so when he was born, everything stopped. At least for a few days.

Every milestone was a moment to cherish as they watched him smile and laugh at six weeks, sit on his own at seven months and walk at a year old. For this first-time parents, having a spacious home was a well-thought out decision to allow Zawadi, their son, unrestricted play. Before his birth, they moved into an old three-bedroom bungalow which they renovated over time.

“We wanted him grow in an environment where he could freely explore,” Riziki said.

However in his second year, there were plenty of less-than-pleasant moments as the couple watched the apple of their eye fall back on his milestones. Zawadi lost his speech and his health deteriorated. The doctor’s visits failed to establish the cause of the retracted developmental milestones. He became more irritable, refused to feed and developed speech regression and convulsions. His parents were exhausted and stressed.

After a battery of blood tests, lead poisoning was diagnosed and the cause was traced to the household renovations, in particular the painting job the couple had undertaken. Lead compounds have been added routinely to paint to give it certain properties such as colour and faster drying time.

 “It broke our hearts that our son was so affected by exposure to lead that he suffered hearing loss,” said Riziki.

Lead builds up in the body and the World Health Organization (WHO) finds there is no known safe level of exposure. It is particularly harmful to young children. Dr Mbira Gikonyo, a consultant Ear Nose and Throat specialist at Landmark Medical Plaza in Nairobi, Kenya has treated many children for lead poisoning.

He said “It causes mental retardation, hearing loss, mood disorders, concentration difficulties, memory impairment, and headaches. Joint pains, muscles aches, and abdominal pain and high blood pressure are other common complaints when exposed to the toxic metal.”

Lead paint has been banned in high income countries for several decades, however, it is still available in many African countries. WHO and the UN Environment are jointly leading the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint which aims to have all countries implement legally binding controls on the manufacture, import, sale and use of lead paint by 2020.  As of 31 August 2018, only six countries in the region reported having laws already in place, or about to be enacted, that restrict the use of lead in paint.

Since early this year Kenya has implemented legally binding controls on lead in paint. Paints may include natural clays and other raw materials that contain residual lead content, therefore it is not technically feasible to set a “zero” limit for lead content in paint. Kenya is one of a handful of countries in the world which has enacted the most restrictive legal limit for lead in paint.

Dr. Faridah Hussein Were is a University of Nairobi lecturer and a member of the Lead Paint Alliance Advisory Council. She said, “Kenya has the lowest allowable limit level of total lead in paint – that’s 90 parts per million, which is the most protective to human health and environment.”

Kenya has also contributed to the harmonization of lead in paint standard in East Africa.

“The paint and allied product draft standard is currently open for public review for comments prior to finalization. Once finalized the standard will regulate lead in paint across the East African Partner States,” said Dr Were.

Charles Ndika Akong, Environmental Health Promotion Officer at WHO’s Regional Office for Africa underlines that phasing out lead paint will not only save lives but also money.

“It’s estimated that the annual cost of lead exposure to Africans is US$134.7 billion. By contrast the financial cost of eliminating the use of lead compounds in many paints is low,” said Mr Akong.

During a side session on 6 November at the Third Interministerial Conference on Health and Environment taking place in Libreville Gabon representatives from the government, WHO, the UN Environment, researchers and civil society pushed for more countries in Africa to set legal limits on lead in paint.

UN Environment, WHO and other partners will shortly be executing a Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) project funded by the Global Environment Facility that aims to assist a further 40 countries globally to put in place the necessary legally binding control measures.

Meanwhile, Riziki is watching her son grow up. She hopes for more active public health education and dedicated implementation of the lead ban in Africa.

“The ban on the use of lead in paints and other products is very good. There should be more effort to educate parents on the dangers posed by ingestion of lead since most houses still have lead paints and pipes,” she concluded.

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