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Action to curb lead paint hazards in South Africa

Lead paintPretoria: The National Department of Health (NDoH), National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and Groundwork, are taking action to raise awareness of, and reduce, lead paint hazards in South Africa.

For centuries lead was added to certain paints to increase durability, speed up the drying process, resist corrosion and keep colours bright. However, research, especially over the past century, has provided clear evidence of lead being toxic, and associated with a wide range of health effects, including reductions in IQ scores, behaviour problems, shortened concentration spans, learning difficulties, higher school failure rates, damage to the kidneys heart and brain, hypertension in adults, infertility.

More recent studies point to a link between lead exposure and aggressive or violent behaviour. Young children are at highest risk of both exposure to lead, and to its harmful health effects, some of which may be irreversible.

Children become exposed to lead mainly through dust and soil, where tiny lead particles may end up after being released from paint and other sources. There is no known safe blood lead level, even very low blood lead concentrations (as low as 3 µg/dL) may be associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems. As lead exposure increases, the range and severity of symptoms and health effects also increase.

In order to reduce lead exposure in South Africa, the government has phased out the use of lead in petrol, funded research to identify vulnerable groups and locations and mounted numerous public awareness campaigns, amongst other actions.

In 2009, after a series of studies undertaken by the SAMRC’s lead poisoning prevention research team, revealed ongoing exposure to lead paint among South African children, the Department of Health has promulgated the regulations for the first time to control the amount of lead that may be added to paint in South Africa.

“In line with international developments, we have now revised those regulations by further lowering the maximum permissible level of lead in paint from 600 ppm to 90 ppm, and prescribing other measures to eliminate exposure to lead in paint and protect public health,” said Mr Murdock Ramathuba, Director of Environmental Health at the National Department of Health.

“We are also making these limits applicable to all paints, produced, sold and used in South Africa, or imported into the country,” he said, adding that previously the regulations had only applied to paint intended for household use.

Meanwhile, Ms. Mamogala Musekene, the Deputy Director General responsible for Chemicals and Waste Management, in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, said that because of the known environment and health risks, the issue of lead paint had been prioritized within Operation Phakisa.

Operation Phakisa is a vehicle to advance the National Development Plan (NDP), and is supported by the Office of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Subsequent to the 1st Chemicals and Waste Phakisa meeting, the DFFE presented to the Coatings Africa Conference held in May 2018, the intentions of the government to eliminate lead in paint, so as to facilitate the swift transition of the industry to lead free paint.

Ms Musekene added that the Department is also concerned about low levels of awareness among the general public of lead hazards, and that together with the NDoH, SAMRC and Groundwork would be spearheading multiple public education initiatives on lead in paint hazards.  

Prof Angela Mathee, Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Environment and Health Research Unit, issued a reminder that apart from new paints, health concern is also warranted over the harmful legacy of old lead paint applied to houses, schools, playground equipment and other items in the past, and to which the poorest and youngest in our society are most vulnerable. She added that the SAMRC lead poisoning prevention research team continues to study other sources of lead exposure in both the formal and informal sectors in South Africa.

“We are pleased about the legislative actions being taken to reduce the lead content of paint,” said Rico Euripidou from Groundwork, “and urge the government to move swiftly to eliminate other sources of lead that pose a risk to the environment, the ecology and to public health.”

Since leaded paint is a continuing source of exposure in many countries, the World Health Organization has joined hands with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to form the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint. The announcement from South Africa to ban lead paint coincides with International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (24 – 30 October 2021), which is an initiative of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, and seen as an opportunity to mobilize political and social commitment for further progress toward a lead safe world.

Apart from a declaration notice related to the forthcoming lead paint regulations which was published in the Government Gazette on 22 October 2021, the NDOH is also hosting a training programme for Environmental Health Practitioners and others on 26th October 2021.  


For further information on lead exposure and health:


  1. National Department of Health
    Mr. Murdock Ramathuba (National Director of Environmental Health)
    072 554 9538
  2. Department of Environmental Affairs
    Mr Albi Modise, Chief Director: Communications, Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment.
    083 490 2871
  3. Groundwork
    Rico Euripidou (Environmental Health Scientist and Campaigner)
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