Manny Calonzo is one of the seven recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, 2018 – regarded the Oscars of the field. The award was in recognition of his painstaking, ten years long crusade against the use of lead paints in the Philippines. Lead, a dangerous neurotoxin even in minute concentrations, is added to paints to make them durable and moisture resistant. The USA banned the use of lead in household paints in 1978, with many developed countries following suit, however, norms and regulations regarding the same are still not quite up to the international standards in most developing nations.
Calonzo, a lifelong activist and grandfather of 12, was involved in campaigns against the use of toxic metals in kids toys before starting his advocacy against lead paints. Lead has no health benefits, and WHO says, ‘there is no safe level of lead exposure.’ The Government of India’s National Health Portal states, “even blood lead concentrations as low as five µg/dl (0.00005 grams/litre) may result in decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems.” Lead builds up in the body from overtime exposure and can damage brain, kidney, liver, blood and reproductive systems of children and adults. In a pregnant woman, lead exposure can cause permanent disabilities in the foetus.
Manny Alonzo’s campaign in the Philippines
In an interview published on Mother Jones, Manny Calonzo states that his campaign began in 2008 when he became president of a pollution control group, EcoWaste Coalition, based in Quezon, Philippines. EcoWaste Coalition decided to test the paints used in the Philippines, and they shipped paint cans, bought in Manila, to India for analysis in a government-certified lab. This was done as part of a study undertaken by Toxics Link, a Delhi based Indian NGO, in collaboration with IPEN, a global network of public interest NGOs.
Shockingly, most of the samples showed lead levels more than the international standard of 90 ppm (parts per million). As much as 40% of samples contained lead levels over 10,000 ppm.Over the next few years, Calonzo held more than 100 events to raise awareness. In the interview, he describes the ‘painstaking efforts’ needed to bring all stakeholders, including government and paint industry, to the table. He appreciates how the paint industry was open to scientific evidence about the impact of lead paint on health.
Five years later, in December 2013, the Philippines government issued a ‘Chemical Control Order,’ limiting lead in paints to the international standard of 90 ppm and proposed to ban household lead paints over the course of three years. A 2017 study found 77% of the total 104 paint samples adhering to the 90 ppm lead limit. Manny believes more work is to be done like raising awareness about toxic chemical pollutants as they affect one and all, including babies still in the womb.
Lead paint in India
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, issued a notification, ‘Regulation on Lead contents in Household and Decorative Paints Rules‘, in 2016, prohibiting the manufacture, trade, import and export of household and decorative paints containing metallic lead exceeding 90 ppm. This was issued under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and stipulates BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) as the nodal agency for the same.
Toxics Link, that also partnered with Calonzo’s EcoWaste Coalition, has conducted five studies, between 2007 to 2015, analysing lead levels in paints sold in Indian markets. The studies show progressively decreasing levels of lead over the years. However, less impact is visible in the SME (small and medium enterprises market share is around 70%) paint manufacturers. The data given below is from a study conducted by Toxics Link titled, ‘Toxic Paints: A research report on Lead Content in Household and Decorative Paints (2017).’
- A total of 15 cans of enamel decorative paints were purchased in Delhi-NCR and analyzed for their lead content.
- A majority of these paint samples, 12 out of 15, were produced by SMEs and were found with high lead content.
- The average concentration of all analyzed paints was 18099 ppm.
- Very high lead concentrations above 10,000 ppm were found in 6 paint samples, and 11 paint samples had lead concentrations above 90 ppm.
- Only four paint samples analyzed in this study are adhering to the lead in paints regulation of the country.
- All these four samples have lead concentration below 90 ppm.
- Out of these four samples tested below 90 PPM, two samples are from SMEs.
NHP’s page on lead poisoning mentions that along with the use of leaded paint, activities such as smelting, manufacturing and recycling, mining, use of leaded gasoline and aviation fuel, are other sources of lead contamination. Even drinking water supplied via lead pipes or pipes joined by lead solder may contain lead. Lead can enter the body through contaminated food and water, inhalation, ingestion and by coming into contact with lead-coated products. Children are especially vulnerable as their nervous system are still in the developing phase, and they are more likely to come in contact with walls and toys painted with lead-based paints.
Also published on Medium.