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A Toxics-Free Future


Study Shows High Health Risks to Indonesian Lead Paint Workers

Listing lead chromates under the Rotterdam Convention is needed to address transparency in the lead paint industry

Jakarta, 11 June 2024 - A study released today by Nexus3 and IPEN finds that workers in factories where lead paint is made have increased risks for health problems, including cancer, compared to workers where lead-safe paints are made. Using blood lead level testing, the study finds that workers in the lead paint making facilities had blood lead levels linked to a significant increase in their lifetime cancer risk, 4 times higher than for workers in a facility that eliminated lead nearly 20 years ago, and 2.5 times higher than for workers in a facility that eliminated lead recently.

“More than 90% of raw materials used to produce paints are chemicals. Our study shows that chronic exposure to lead and other heavy metals increases the cancer risk and non-cancer risks of paint workers. Replacing lead with safer alternatives, regular risk communication, the use of PPEs, and adequate facilities for workers to clean themselves before they go home is crucial to protect workers," said Yuyun Ismawati, Senior Advisor with Nexus3 Foundation."The government of Indonesia must prohibit lead paint being manufactured and sold in Indonesia."  

The study compared blood lead levels of workers in lead paint making factories (called Industry C) with workers in a facility that eliminated lead in 2005 (Industry A) and another that eliminated lead in 2019 (Industry B). The study found:

  • 75% of Industry C’s respondents have high blood lead levels greater than 5 μg/dL, compared to only 5-8% in Industry A and B, respectively. 
  • 10% of Industry C workers had blood lead levels linked to a significant increase in their lifetime cancer risk, four times higher than for workers in Industry A and 2.5 times higher than for workers in Industry B.
  • 55% of respondents in Industry C had blood lead levels that showed an increased non-cancer risk. Workers in Industry C have an elevated lifetime risk for non-cancer health conditions related to lead exposure, almost 3.5 times higher for workers in Industry A and almost 2 times higher than those in Industry B.
  • Dust lead levels in Industry C are 5 times to 410 times higher than the CDC dust lead clearance level of 10 μg/ft2. 
  • The lead captured in dermal patch filters of Industry C’s respondents is 5 to 6 times higher than that of Industry A and B respondents. 
  • Lead exposure via skin contact or the dermal exposure pathway was significantly higher among workers in Industry C, more than four times higher than among Industry A workers and more than five times higher than among Industry B workers. 
  • Some respondents in all three groups had high blood levels of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, thallium, or chromium, which may be linked to elevated lifetime risks for cancer related to the inhalation pathways. 

Lead-based paint is still widely produced and used in many low- and middle-income developing countries due to its low price in the market. However, safer, cost-effective alternatives to lead are already widely available and in use in many countries, including Indonesia. Lead is added to the paint manufacturing process as pigments, called lead chromate, and drying agents are the primary reasons for adding lead. In 2021, a Nexus3 and IPEN study found that more than 73% of solvent-based paint sold and manufactured in Indonesia have high lead concentrations, up to 250,000 ppm.

Currently there are calls to control the trade in lead chromates through the Rotterdam Convention. Listing lead chromates through the Convention would require Prior Informed Consent before the pigments could be exported. In April 2024, the Government of Cameroon submitted a Notification to the Rotterdam Secretariat proposing to list lead chromates under Annex III.

WHO has designated lead as one of the ten chemicals of public health concern, and ILO highlighted that in 1921 the world already had the first White Lead (Painting) Convention to protect women and children. Lead is considered a potent poison that affects multiple body systems, even in low doses. 

Evidence shows that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified lead as a human carcinogen. Countless studies over decades of research have linked high levels of lead in blood to an increased incidence of cancer—especially lung and brain cancers—and several other non-cancer health conditions. 

“We know that load can harm children’s development, but it’s important to understand that lead is also harmful for adults,” said Jeiel Guarino, IPEN Global Lead Paint Elimination Campaigner. “Eliminating lead paint is the best way to protect workers, children, and communities from these toxic exposures to lead.”

Experts also highlighted inhalation as a primary route of metal exposure for occupational and, to a lesser extent, environmental exposure. Metals have a high potential for producing toxic effects in the respiratory tract. Studies indicated that occupational exposure to many metals results in a variety of acute and chronic lung diseases, including chemical pneumonitis, chronic obstructive lung disease, immune-mediated diseases, fume fever, and cancer.

“This study is clear evidence that industry must eliminate lead to protect their workers. This step will also importantly protect all of us from lead paint,” said IPEN Science Advisor Sara Brosché. “We need global policies to control the trade in lead chromates and eliminate the production of lead paint.”

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Nexus Foundation for Environmental Health and Development or Nexus3 Foundation (previously known as BaliFokus Foundation) works to safeguard the public, especially vulnerable populations, from the impact of development on their health and the environment, towards a just, toxic-free, and sustainable future.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is a global network of more than 600 Participating Organizations in over 125 countries, primarily developing and transition countries. IPEN works to establish and implement safe chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment, for a toxics-free future for all.