groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa

WHO Lead Poisoning Prevention Week starts tomorrow

Durban, South Africa, 25 October 2015 – Lead poisoning is entirely preventable yet the World Health Organisation estimates childhood lead exposure to contribute to about 600 000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year [1]. Tomorrow marks the start of the WHO’s third international lead poisoning prevention week, which aims to raise awareness about lead poisoning and urge further action to eliminate lead in paint [2]. 

Lead exposure is estimated to account for 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions.

Even though there is wide recognition of this problem and many countries have taken action, exposure to lead, particularly in childhood, remains of key concern to health care providers and public health officials worldwide.

Lead is used in many everyday products such as leaded petrol, lead in paints, ceramics, food cans, make-up, traditional remedies, and batteries. Human exposure mainly occurs from ingestion or inhalation (air, dust, food or water) and sometimes dermal absorption from organic lead compounds.

Professor Angela Mathee is the Director of the Environment and Health Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council [3] in Johannesburg and a member of a WHO Expert Group on Lead Poisoning Prevention.  According to Mathee:

“While there was an encouraging, overall decline in children’s blood lead levels after leaded petrol was phased out in South Africa, our research shows that there are still multiple sources of lead posing risks to the health and well-being of South Africans. These include lead used in paint, fishing sinkers, ammunition, cottage industries and invisible lead particles brought home on the skin, hair and clothing of those working in lead-related industries. Given the consequences of lead exposure for health and the South African economy, there is an urgent need to implement a nation-wide programme for lead poisoning prevention in the country”.

The South African Paint Manufacturers’ Association (SAPMA) is a member of the International Paint and Printing Ink Council (IPPIC), which is in turn a contributor to the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, established by the United Nations and World Health Organisation.  SAPMA’s Executive Director, Deryck Spence states:

“As far as SAPMA is concerned, Lead Poisoning Prevention Awareness Week happens every day. We have the legislation and the awareness in place. What we need is policing by the Department of Health in order that meaningful prosecution of offending manufacturers takes place. At the moment, we simply do not have enforcement.”

Many health effects such as: gastrointestinal effects, anaemia, hypertension and hearing loss, effects on the nervous system (e.g. on behaviour and cognition), on development, and on the reproductive system, as well as genotoxicity, carcinogenicity and social effects have been associated with lead exposure.

For the most part, these effects are permanent. They are irreversible and untreatable by modern medicine, however childhood lead poisoning, is an entirely preventable disease. Prevention is the best way to combat lead poisoning.

The major sources of children’s exposure to lead are:

  • lead added to petrol
  • lead from an active industry, such as mining (especially in soils)
  • lead-based paints and pigments
  • lead solder in food cans
  • ceramic glazes
  • drinking-water systems with lead solder and lead pipes
  • lead in products, such as herbal and traditional medicines, folk remedies, cosmetics and toys
  • lead released by incineration of lead-containing waste
  • lead in electronic waste (e-waste)
  • lead in the food chain, via contaminated soil
  • lead contamination as a legacy of historical contamination from former industrial sites.

A social media campaign will be run throughout the week using #StopLeadPaint as the main focus of action.



[1] For more information on childhood lead poisoning read the World Health Organisation’s guidance document (2010)
[2] For more information on the World Health Organisation’s international lead poisoning prevention week
[3] The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) was established in 1969 with the aim to deliver on a mandate to promote the improvement of the health and the quality of life of the population of our country through research, development and technology transfer
[4] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Coal, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Friends of the Earth International.



Megan Lewis
Media, Information and Publications Officer
Tel (w): +27 (0) 33 342 5662
Tel (m): +27 (0) 83 450 5541

Rico Euripidou
Environmental Health Campaigner
Tel (w): +27 (0) 33 342 5662
Tel (m): +27 (0) 83 519 3008

South African Medical Research Council
Professor Angela Mathee
Director, Environment and Health Research Unit
Tel (m): +27 (0) 82 464 7038