Study finds higher levels of lead in Nepal, Bangladesh

Indian paint majors are showing their true colours in neighbouring markets, by including dangerously high levels of lead in their products, according to a study conducted by some non-governmental organisations in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

For example, Asian Paints' Golden Yellow shade of paint contains only 90 ppm (parts per million) of lead in India, meeting international standards. In Nepal, it contained 190 ppm of lead, exceeding global safety norms, but meeting Indian standards. However, in Bangladesh, the same shade of paint contained a whopping 43,600 ppm of lead.

Similarly, Berger Paints' Golden Yellow paint has 17,200 ppm of lead in India – well above any safety limits – but almost 2.12 lakh ppm in Nepal. In Bangladesh, the same shade contains 1.22 lakh ppm of lead, but Berger Paints India has no equity stake in its Bangladeshi counterpart, although they share the same parent brand.

The claim that top paint manufacturers are marketing toxic products in countries with laxer standards - even while phasing them out in India - is found in the report titled “Double Standard - Investigating Lead Content In Leading Enamel Paint Brands In South Asia”.

Collaborative effort

The report was a collaborative effort by Toxics Link, India, the Center for Public Health and Environment Development, Nepal, and the Environment and Social Development Organization, Bangladesh.

The study examined 27 paint samples of common brands from Nepal, India and Bangladesh for their lead content. Apart from Asian Paints and Berger, which have manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh and Nepal, the study also examined samples from ICI and Nerolac, which largely export their products from India to neighbouring countries, and did not show such a wide differential.

In a statement, Berger Paints India insisted that it has switched to lead-free formulations, and suggested that the study's results may have come from older samples. The study shows that the samples had manufacturing dates between February 2009 and July 2010.

However, Berger admitted that products in neighbouring countries still contained lead. “It is expected that Berger will be able to totally change to lead free formulations in Nepal in a short span of two to three months,” said the statement, adding that Berger Bangladesh expects to be lead-free within six months.

Despite repeated attempts by phone and email, Asian Paints did not respond to these allegations.

In recent years, lead has been phased out or restricted in many consumer products due to serious health impacts, especially in children and fetuses. The United States has enforced a lead limit of 90 ppm in paint. While India does not have any mandatory norms, the voluntary limit has been set at 1,000 ppm. Neither Nepal nor Bangladesh have any safety standard, mandatory or otherwise.

The study found that 63 per cent of the samples exceeded the American safety limit, while 44 per cent exceeded the Indian limit.

Urging the region's multinational paint majors to end their toxic double standards, the NGOs behind the study also called on governments to swiftly bring enforceable standards to safeguard the health of their children.