Despite the issue being raised several times earlier, and some countries banning the metal in interior paints as early as 1909, India is yet to take concrete steps to control the menace.
The environment ministry and central pollution control board are still in the midst of formulating a plan to first limit and then phase out lead content from paint completely.
India is supposed to conform to a maximum limit of 1,000 parts per million (PPM) or .1% of a total lead content. Even this limit is sadly, voluntary. Meanwhile, countries like the United States and Singapore have a limit of 600 ppm and even this figure is under review. China in the news for its high lead toys, incidentally, has a standard of 90 ppm.
The study by Toxics Link examined samples of plastic and enamel paints picked up mostly in Delhi and some from Mumbai. Of these, most oil-based enamel paints were found to contain lead ranging from 25 ppm to 14,000 ppm. In effect, 83.87% of the enamel samples had lead content ranging from 600 ppm to 14,000 ppm. Since plastic paints were found to contain low concentrations of lead, of the total samples tested, 38% were found to contain high concentrations of lead.
Says lead author Dr Abhay Kumar: "Lead is used in paints to impart color and make it durable, corrosion resistant and to improve drying. However, there are many substitutes available for lead and keeping in mind the health risks it poses, the government needs to bring in immediate steps to regulate lead standards."
In the recent scare where plastic toys were found to contain high levels of toxic metals, paints were held culprit. According to industry sources, the toxicity stemmed not so much from the material of the toys as from the paints used to coat them with.
Most of the paint samples studied were products of well-known, international companies. "What is surprising then is the fact that while these companies have to stick to the limits prescribed by individual countries, no such regulations are adhered to for India, basically because lead is a viable option for producers and there is no monitoring mechanism here," bemoans Ravi Agarwal, director, Toxics Link.
According to doctors, children are most susceptible to lead poisoning since it is most easily absorbed into tissues of growing children. Lead dust has a sweet flavor and often sees children eating paint chips or chewing plastic toys. A single chip of paint the size of a thumbnail contains 1 gm of lead.