Inaction discourages positive change in industry

It was in early 2008 that my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment had tested household paints for lead content. The issue was not new. Lead in paints had been widely indicted across the world for being a silent poison—particularly when used on walls and items that children would lick or chew.

As is our practice, we bought samples of leading brands available in the market and analyzed content for the toxin. We found staggeringly high levels of lead in virtually all samples we checked. India does not have a mandatory standard for regulating lead in paints. We only have a voluntary code laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis), which specifies that lead content should be 1,000 ppm. Our tests found that the biggest and best companies had lead levels 180 times the voluntary standard.

But we were not surprised, as I said. After all, the Indian government has not set standards to phase out lead in this daily use product. Something most governments have done some 20 years ago. In the US, lead had been termed the number one environmental threat to the health of children. But it was a non-issue for the industry in India. We were angry at this indifference and decided to write to all major paint companies asking them about their plans to phase out lead. We expected little response. But this time we were really surprised.

Two of the major companies—Asian Paints and Nerolac—wrote back saying that they were planning to get rid of lead. They promised that this would happen soon, within a few months. So, instead of immediately releasing our report, we thought we should wait: to recheck and to validate if the companies kept the promise they had made to us. Some months later we went to the market again. We picked samples of the colours and the companies, which had earlier not cleaned up their act.

Our analysis found a change. Of the big five, three companies had no lead in their product. Asian Paints and Nerolac had indeed cleaned up. Still, two had lead in the samples we tested—Berger and Shalimar. Both are big companies and both have no excuses. The fact is that companies have the technology to phase out lead.

The problem is that it costs some money and so companies do not spend until pushed by regulations, or in this case by environmental pressure. The mandatory standards are also necessary as only then do companies get a level playing field because all of them have to comply. So, government has to step in and set regulations and then ensure that these can be enforced.

This is critical today. We cannot have a government-in-absence in such matters of public health. It is not enough for us to say that industry is responsible and it will take action voluntarily.

Here is a case in point. It is not as if the paint industry did not know that lead is called the silent epidemic (because the human body cannot process and excrete the heavy metal). Across the world, studies have shown that lead exposure can be severe on foetuses and young children. The impacts include delays in physical and mental development, lower IQ levels, shortened attention spans, and increased behavioural problems. Of course lead, like many other toxic chemicals we are exposed to, can rarely be indicted as the single cause of an ailment.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has declared unsafe lead level in blood exceeding 10 microgramme per decilitre. Studies indicate that over 60 per cent of children in India may have more than this level in their blood.

Research at the Mangalore based-Kasturba Medical College, published in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics in 2004, had found 11 children—out of 104—with over 40 microgramme per decilitre of lead in their blood. The one child who had blood lead level of almost 73 microgramme per decilitre played regularly on a swing coated with lead-based paint. The child’s lead level dropped to 46 microgramme per decilitre when the swing was repainted with a lead-free product.

We must think of this today as we begin to use more and more products in our houses about which we know less and less. Think of the household cleaners that are sold in the market. There are no regulations to check the chemicals used to make the product.

We only regulate the environmental fallout of the production process of the product—the emissions or effluents of the factory. There are no regulations to check the environmental fallout of the product itself. Many years ago, the government had started an eco-labelling scheme, which was to set environmental standards for products. But this failed miserably.

We know that in the case of detergents, for which eco-labelling is available, not a single product has applied for certification. No company is interested, because the government has abdicated its responsibility on these matters of our health.

This cannot be acceptable. We need to get angry. We need to make the difference.

—Sunita Narain