groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa)

International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action exposes risk of lead

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 21 October 2013 – Today marks the start of the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action [1], aimed at addressing the lack of awareness around the harmful effects of lead poisoning, related particularly to lead in paint, and the severe impacts lead poisoning has on childhood development. Whilst lead poisoning is entirely preventable, exposure to the heavy metal is estimated to account for 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions such as South Africa. Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600 000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year.

The International Week of Action on Prevention of Lead Poisoning, ending on Saturday, 26 October, will raise awareness about lead poisoning in order to highlight countries and partners’ (see Footnotes [1]) efforts to prevent childhood lead poisoning and urge further action on governments and the paint industry to eliminate lead in paint.

Even though there is widespread recognition of this problem and many countries have taken action, exposure to lead, particularly in childhood, remains of key concern to health care providers and public health officials worldwide. Research shows that lead poisoning in children has been linked to lowered intelligence scores, hearing loss, hyperactivity, shortened concentration spans and general poor school performance. There have also been studies that indicate that exposure to lead may lead to aggression and violent behaviour [2].

Paints containing high levels of lead are still widely available and used in many countries for decorative purposes, although good substitutes without lead are available. This is an opportunity to mobilize political and social commitment for further progress.

Around 2005 the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) undertook a series of studies showing that children are at risk of exposure to lead-based paint applied to toys, playground equipment and homes, and that lead-based paint was freely available from paint and hardware stores around the country. MRC studies have also shown that far too many South African children continue to have high blood lead levels.

In response to the findings, the National Department of Health promulgated regulations in 2009 which set a maximum permissible level of 600 ppm for paint manufactured and sold in South Africa, and also instructed on labelling for lead paint cans. A public health education programme to increase awareness of the sources and health hazards of lead was also implemented.

In 2009, groundWork participated in a global study of new household enamel paints sold in many retail outlets (including in South Africa), the findings of which showed that many paints contained high levels of lead. The study found lead concentrations exceeding the global benchmark of 90ppm in 65% of the South African enamel paint sampled.  Additionally 62 percent had lead concentrations more than the interim SA standard of 600 ppm (0.1 percent) [3].

Not only is lead in paint a major source of poisoning, fishermen are also susceptible to lead poisoning through the melting of lead based materials for sinkers to fish with (see Footnote [2]). Additionally, workers in industries involving battery manufacturing and recycling, mining, smelting and painting were amongst those at particular risk of lead exposure and poisoning.

Partnership activities in South Africa include the following:

Useful links:

Useful references:


[1] The International Week of Action on Prevention of Lead Poisoning (20 – 26 October 2013) is organised by the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint – a joint undertaking of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) – together with the South African Department of Health and Department of Labour.
[2] Mathee, A. et. al. (2013). “Lead exposure in young school children in South African subsistence fishing communities.” Environmental Research, accessed at:
[3] Lead in new decorative paints: A global study:

Megan Lewis
Media, Information and Publications Campaigner
Tel (w): 033 342 5662
Mobile: 083 450 5541

Rico Euripidou
Environmental Health Campaigner and Researcher
Tel (w): 033 342 5662
Mobile: 083 519 3008