The health of Pakistan’s children is at risk due to the “dangerous and illegally high levels” of lead found in about 40% of the oil-based paints being sold in local markets.

The health of Pakistan’s children is at risk due to the “dangerous and illegally high levels” of lead found in about 40% of the oil-based paints being sold in local markets, according to a study released on Tuesday by Pakistani and foreign research organizations.

The leading regional authority on lead paint policy, the Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) of the Government of Pakistan, has been forced by recent revelations to urge paint manufacturers to immediately remove lead from their products.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that lead poisoning kills an estimated one million people annually and that millions more—many of them children—are exposed to low levels of lead, which can cause lifelong health issues like anaemia, hypertension, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive system. Lead exposure may have long-lasting effects on the brain and behaviour.

In contrast, scientists from the Aga Khan University (AKU) and the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) examined 60 paints for residential use from 21 different brands that were offered for sale in Karachi. The World Health Organization’s recommended level and Pakistan’s mandatory limit for lead were both exceeded by about 40% of the paint samples.

A certain brand of paint had a 1,000-fold overdose. Children who are exposed to lead experience severe health consequences, including anaemia, stunted growth, and permanent damage to their cognitive development. Pakistan suffers a loss of $38 billion annually due to the estimated 47 million children who are poisoned by lead from paint and other sources.

In 2017, the PSQCA enacted a mandatory standard limiting the amount of lead in paint to 100 parts per million. The PSQCA’s efforts to make sure manufacturers are adhering to the mandatory limit will be aided by the new data.

AKU and LEEP‘s research found high levels of lead in nine of the major paint brands and in eight smaller brands. The most harmful paints were typically yellow and red. Lead exposure can be caused by various sources, with paint being an important source globally.

Dr. Zafar Fatmi, Professor of Environmental Health & Climate Change, Community Health Sciences at Aga Khan University, said lead is a neurotoxin, and even low levels of exposure can result in reduced intelligence, lower educational attainment, reduced future earnings, and increased violent behaviour.

Lead affects all body systems, also causing anaemia, growth stunting, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Fatmi explained that lead poisoning is mainly caused by gasoline, but there are secondary sources such as paints, toys, and Kohl (Surma) that also contain lead. Pregnant women and children up to five years of age are most affected, as lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage and mental health issues.

Zain ul Abedin, Director General of the PSQCA, and Dr. Lucia Coulter, Co-Executive Director of LEEP, praised the Government of Pakistan’s lead policy and pledged to support its enforcement efforts. LEEP is offering no-cost technical support to any partners in the industry who would like assistance in removing lead from their paint.

Dr Imran Saqib Khalid, Director of Governance and Policy at WWF-Pakistan, said reducing lead in paint is an effective and low-cost opportunity to improve child health, reduce poverty and contribute to the UN sustainable development goals. Dr. Durr-e-Amna Siddiqui, an AKU health expert, said lead is not a necessary ingredient in paint and that some brands in Pakistan have already removed lead ingredients.