Last updated: 17 Oct 2022
There is wide recognition of the harmful effects of lead and many countries have taken action. However, exposure to lead, particularly in childhood, remains of key concern worldwide. As a global hub of the governance of chemicals, waste and pollution, Geneva is an important place to foster global efforts to prevent lead poisoning, with key organizations active on the topic.
Environmental and Health Impacts of Lead
Lead is a naturally occurring metal. Its chemical and physical characteristics, such as its malleability, low melting point and resistance to corrosion, making it amenable to a range of uses. Lead is also highly toxic to humans and the environment; it is a cumulative pollutant particularly hazardous to young children and pregnant women. No safe level of lead exposure has been established. In other words, there is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects. Once taken into the body through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact, lead can cause permanent damage to the neurological and cardiovascular systems.
The mining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling of lead and its use in a wide range of products are sources of environmental contamination. Humans are then exposed to lead from both the environment and the products we use. Lead is the most found in batteries which account for more than 85% of the global demand. Lead can also be found in pigments paint and cosmetic which are the most dangerous areas because its use in our home and on our face. Ammunitions, fishing, construction, and plumbing are also sectors in which lead is used and leads to detrimental effects on people and the environment.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health impacts, particularly on the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight.
Why lead poisoning is a danger to your child’s health | UNICEF
Lead Use in Products
Lead in Paint
Lead compound can add durability, opacity and color to paint. As of September 2019, 73 countries have adopted lead paint law to reduce the amount of lead added in paint to 90 ppm, the smallest quantity technically feasible. Since 2009, the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint was aims to catalyze efforts to prevent children’s exposure to lead from paints and to minimize occupational exposures to lead paint. Read more →
Historically, tetraethyl lead was added to petrol as an antiknock agent for better engine combustion. Through its uses, lead was dispersed on surface soils, resulting in the most significant historical source of human lead exposure. The Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), established at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, is the leading global public-private initiative promoting cleaner fuels and vehicles in developing and transition countries, throughout its successful many-years campaign to end the use of leaded petrol on a global scale. Read more →
More than 85% of the total global consumption of lead is for the production of lead-acid batteries mainly used in motorized vehicles, storage of energy generated by photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, and for back-up power supplies. Recycled lead is a valuable commodity for many people in the developing world, making the recovery of car batteries a viable and profitable business which is practiced in both formal and informal sectors globally. However, inappropriate recycling operations release considerable amounts of lead particles and fumes emitted into the air, deposited onto soil, water bodies and other surfaces, with both environment and human health negative impacts. Read more →
Lead is also used in various other areas, including for cookware and food storage, construction and plumbing, cosmetics and dyes, fishing weights and ammunition. In some instances, lead has also been added intentionally to food to enhance color or sweetness. Read more →
International Cooperation to Eliminate Lead Use
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint is a voluntary partnership formed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent exposure to lead through promoting the phase-out of paints containing lead. The Lead Paint Alliance is guided by an Advisory Council chaired by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and consisting of Government representatives from Colombia, Republic of Moldova, Kenya, Thailand, the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL), the American Bar Association, Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) the World Coating Council (formerly IPPIC), AkzoNobel and Pacific Paint Philippines (paint companies).
The PCFV has been most successful in the global elimination of leaded petrol. In 2002 when the PCFV was formed, 82 countries were still using leaded petrol. Today only one country remains and plans are underway to also eliminate leaded petrol in that country. Leaded petrol poisoning has been one of the world’s most serious environmental health problems, responsible for 90% or more of human lead exposure. A UNEP-commissioned study estimates the benefits of the global elimination of leaded petrol at over 1.2 million premature deaths avoided per year, of which 125,000 are children. The overall global benefit of eliminating leaded petrol adds up to $2.45 trillion per year.
The International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (ILPPW) takes place every year during the third week of October. 2022 will mark 10 years of action to eliminate lead paint. In 2022, the theme “Say no to lead poisoning” recognizes the additional urgency of action needed to eliminate all sources of lead exposure.
The aim of the week of action is to:
- raise awareness about health effects of lead exposure;
- highlight the efforts of countries and partners to prevent lead exposure, particularly in children; and
- urge further action to eliminate lead paint through regulatory action at country level.
Further efforts are required to continue to reduce the use and releases of lead and to reduce environmental and occupational exposures, particularly for children and women of child-bearing age. Interventions include eliminating non-essential uses of lead such as lead in paint, ensuring the safe recycling of lead-containing waste, educating the public about the importance of safe disposal of lead-acid batteries and computers, and monitoring of blood lead levels in children, women of child-bearing age and workers.
The Role of Geneva
Organizations listed in alphabetical order
The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) is a collaborative body of more than 60 members and dozens of observers that advocate for resources and solutions to pollution problems. GAHP was formed under the vision that a collaborative, multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral approach is necessary to deal with the global pollution crisis and resulting health and economic impacts. The Alliance was initiated in 2012 by Pure Earth with representatives from The World Bank, UNEP, UNDP, UNIDO, Asian Development Bank, the European Commission, Ministries of Environment and Health of many low and middle-income countries (LMICs) to formulate strategies to address pollution and health at scale. GAHP incorporated as a foundation in 2019 in Geneva.
The Global Lead Forum is a platform to bring together a wide range of actors who are typically siloed from each other: academics, multilateral and bilateral donors, national ministries of health and environment, the UN system, professional organizations, NGOs, and the private sector. The purpose of the Forum is to provide an open, global platform for knowledge-sharing and exchange by a wide variety of actors working on lead exposure, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. This project is led by the GAHP, with support from Pure Earth.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has long recognized the dangers of lead exposure for human health, evidenced by the Lead Poisoning (Women and Children) Recommendation (No. 4) – one of the first legal standards of the ILO, developed in 1919. Understanding that the protection of workers from the harmful effects of chemicals also enhances the protection of the general public and the environment, ILO further promotes its legal standards on exposures to hazardous substances, including the Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170). ILO works in collaboration with its social partners towards the achievement of goals, while furthering its actions to protect workers from hazardous chemical exposures along global supply chains.
The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) was developed by a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral Preparatory Committee and supports the achievement of the 2020 goals agreed at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. SAICM’s overall objective is the achievement of the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that by the year 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health. The upcoming fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5), to take place in September 2023 in Bonn is expected to take an decision on future arrangements for the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. SAICM has a dedicated program on Lead in Paint which project provides the impetus to attain the Lead Paint Alliance goal of eliminating lead paint.
The SR Toxics is an independent expert mandated by the Human Rights Council to help States, businesses and other stakeholders adopt solutions to the human rights issues related to exposure to harmful substances. In 2020, the SR Toxics published a report on “The human right to an effective remedy: the case of lead-contaminated housing in Kosovo”
The Chemicals and Health Branch of UNEP work closely with governments, industry, and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste. The Branch is leading UNEP’s work on lead, including the secretariat of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint and the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.
Through the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), WHO works to establish the scientific basis for the sound management of chemicals, and to strengthen national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety. WHO provides scientific assessment and risk management recommendations for the chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern, including lead. Together with UNEP, WHO leads the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint.
Other Hazardous Substances
Besides lead, the international community in Geneva and beyond works actively to reduce exposure to toxic substances, and address their impacts on human health and the environment.
- Lead and cadmium mandates | UNEP | All UNEA resolutions on lead
- 2021 Update on the Global Status of Legal Limits on Lead in Paint | UNEP | 30 September 2022
- Lead poisoning | WHO | 31 August 2022
- Exposure to lead: a major public health concern, 2nd edition | WHO | 21 October 2021
- FORESIGHT Brief: The Need to Eliminate Lead Paint Globally | UNEP | December 2020
- The Toxic Truth | UNICEF & Pure Earth | July 2020 | See also here