Millions of people, many of whom are children and pregnant women, have suffered lifelong health complications like anaemia, hypertension, and reproductive organ damage as a result of low-level lead exposure.

This situation is considerably more worrying when it is understood that the neurological and behavioural impacts of lead could be irreversible.

Generally, the common question that any right-thinking person will ask is, “What in the world is lead?” And what is its relationship to humans? To put it simply, “lead” is a “chemical,” and it is used to produce a variety of products found in and around our homes, including paint, which is the subject of our discussion.

With this understanding in mind, it is evident just how vital this lethal material is to contemporary living, especially considering its function in boosting socioeconomic development. Lead components, for instance, are employed in paint manufacturing due to their special chemical characteristics that speed up drying, boost durability, preserve freshness, and withstand moisture-induced corrosion.

As beneficial as lead is in daily life, it is also a basic human right for all citizens to know that its components can be hazardous to human health and the environment if not handled properly.

In Nigeria, how to effectively regulate chemicals remains a critical prerequisite for achieving sustainable development, which is why the country’s Federal Ministry of Environment, following its mandate, has been making concerted efforts to ensure the environmentally sound management of chemicals, including lead, for the sake of public safety.

EnviroNews Nigeria reports that in light of the above, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, in Abuja, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), in collaboration with Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev Nigeria), organised a regional workshop to raise awareness on the dangers, safer alternatives, and reformulation paint methods for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Although the activity was motivated to achieve several goals, one that stands out is to enhance public knowledge of the negative health and economic impact of lead compounds, as well as to strengthen the national capacity for eliminating the use of lead paint in Nigeria. It was also designed to help improve understanding of Nigeria’s current lead paint standards, ongoing efforts to review them, and the gazetted National Environmental Chemicals and Pesticides Regulations, 2024, for lead paint in Nigeria, to ensure that all stakeholders are well-informed and ready to comply with the new guidelines.

Speaking at the ceremony, NESREA director-general, Professor Aliyu Jauro, acknowledged that his agency was fully aware of the gravity of the problem and has been actively working to protect public health and the environment by regulating chemicals, including paint and other products that contain lead.

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This is significant, he explained, because lead is a highly hazardous material that can cause developmental delays, irreversible brain damage, and a variety of other health problems. It also poses substantial health risks, particularly for young people. Consequently, it is critical to understand that, to ensure a healthier and more sustainable future, getting rid of lead from paint is not only feasible but also necessary.

“We will provide technical guidance, share best practices, and facilitate collaborations to ensure a smooth transition to lead-free paints,” Prof. Jauro stated, assuring participants that NESREA and SRADev Nigeria would help them through the Lead Exposure Elimination Project to achieve their goal of ensuring a lead-free society.

Even though Nigeria has a lead paint standard of 90 ppm set by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Dr. Leslie Adogame, SRADev Nigeria’s executive director, said no safe level of lead exposure is yet to be established and that reducing the adverse health effects of lead in paints can only be achieved through prevention – reducing and eliminating sources of exposure as much as possible.

“I must stress that lead is not needed in paint,” he said, drawing attention to the fact that more and more countries, including Nigeria, are enacting lead paint legislation to carefully limit their usage.

One of the instruments Nigeria has employed over the past few years to manage its chemical use is the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), a voluntary initiative adopted in 2006 by the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) in Dubai.

While the SAICM did make some significant progress, it also failed to meet its objectives. As a result, the framework was reviewed, negotiated, adopted in 2023, and renamed the Global Framework on Chemicals. The new instrument provides a vision for a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste for safe, healthy, and sustainable development, and it’s based on 28 targets that aim to improve the sound management of chemicals and waste.

The truth is that while acknowledging the efforts made to eliminate lead from paint, Nigeria as a country must continue to strive to improve its chemical regulatory framework, gain specific expertise for conducting regulatory impact assessments, and learn how to prevent the importation of lead-containing pigments and promote compliance. It is also essential for the country to commit to increasing capacity building, transferring technology on mutually agreed-upon terms, and providing financial support, including from local sources, regional and international development cooperation, private sector aid, and philanthropic contributions.

Additionally, the nation must commit to effective and efficient chemical and waste management through accountability, transparency, access to information on chemicals related to human and environmental health and safety, and justice, as well as inclusive and meaningful participation that allows for multi-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

To summarise, Nigeria cannot eliminate the use of lead paint without the collaborative efforts of industry players and citizens, which is precisely one of the gaps that the workshop intended to close, because it is only when this is accomplished will the country be able to take pride in making a lasting impact, removing lead paint from our communities, and ensuring a brighter future for future generations.