Joining competitor AkzoNobel, paint giant PPG Industries says it will remove lead from its coatings. Although activists are lauding the move, hundreds of paint brands, particularly in developing countries, continue to contain lead.
Numerous lead-containing chemicals have found their way into paints over the years, says Ronald Lewarchik, who runs the coatings consulting firm Chemical Dynamics. Lead carbonate was once added for whiteness and opacity. Lead octoate and lead 2-ethylhexanoate are still used in some countries as driers in oil-based paints.
The U.S. banned lead in consumer paints in 1978, but the metal continues to be allowed in industrial paints. And many developing countries don’t regulate lead at all, according to Occupational Knowledge International, an environmental group that pushed PPG to eliminate lead.
PPG says it does not use lead in its consumer paints anywhere in the world. A small number of its nonconsumer products contain lead, and the company says it is committed to reformulating them by 2020.
Most challenging to remove, Lewarchik says, will be lead-based pigments such as lead chromate, which imparts a bright yellow, and lead chromate/oxide cocrystal, also known as chrome orange. Alternative organic pigments are just as durable and weather-resistant as lead-based ones, but they are considerably more expensive.
Even companies with the technical wherewithal to remove lead must confront the financial penalty for doing so, Lewarchik notes, recalling his own past attempts to convince employers to drop lead. “They have to be competitive to earn a living,” he says.