Primary-coloured poison: lead paint still a huge threat to Indonesian kids

Nearly 70 per cent of commercially available paints in Indonesia contain levels of lead higher than the regulatory safe limit of 600 parts per million (ppm).

peeling paint
Paint peels off playground equipment in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city. Image: asterikka, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

At the corner of Sei Batanghari Road in Medan, the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, kindergarten students run around a building in their school uniforms. The bell to call them back to class hasn’t rung yet. Most of the kids are enjoying the playground’s slides and swings. Almost all of the playground equipment is painted in bright primary colours: yellow and red, blue and green. In their classrooms, the tables and chairs are also painted bright colours.

A similar scene plays out in nearby Beringin Park, in front of the governor’s office, where more children play on playground equipment provided by the local government. Much of the equipment here is also coated in bright shades of red, yellow and blue paint.

Medan is hardly unique in this regard; many cities feature public facilities for kids painted in bright colours. But in Indonesia, those shades of paint, meant to make things appear more kid-friendly, actually makes them more of a serious health risk to children, according to a new study showing that a large percentage of the paints produced and used in Indonesia, particularly the brightly coloured kinds used around children, contain dangerously high levels of lead.

The study was produced by the Nexus3 Foundation, an Indonesian nonprofit working to safeguard the public from environmental toxins, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). It found that most wood and metal paints in Indonesia still contain high concentrations of lead, many with more than 600 parts per million (ppm), the regulatory safe limit.

Heavy metals like lead are particularly toxic for children. Exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and cause learning and behavioral problems, all of which can lead to lower IQs.

It is estimated that there are around 33 million school-age children in Indonesia who are exposed to lead paint on a daily basis, often in environments like schools and playgrounds where children eat as well, making the risk of accidental ingestion or exposure much greater, according to the study.

Yuyun Ismawati, a senior adviser for Nexus3, said they tested 120 cans of paint from various brands chosen randomly from a number of construction supply stores in 10 of Indonesia’s largest cities: Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, Bekasi, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Sidoarjo and Denpasar.

Out of the 120 paints they tested, 101 were solvent-based, eight were water-based, three were anti-rust, three were spray paints, and five were industrial-grade paints meant for road markings.

“The paints included in the research sample consisted of 66 brands produced by 47 manufacturers. Of the 120 paints, we found that 78 per cent of them were produced nationally, 4 per cent were locally made and 18 per cent were produced by multinational companies. They were all chosen at random,” Yuyun said in an online discussion about the report.

Nexus3 applied all of their paint samples to wood and let them dry for three days before sealing them for transport to the SGS Forensic Laboratories in San Francisco, which specialises in analysing lead content.

The results from their laboratory testing found that 39 per cent of the paint samples had lead content of more than 10,000 ppm, far exceeding the 600 ppm limit established by the Indonesian National Standard (SNI). The SNI is the minimum regulatory standard that all commercial products in Indonesia are supposed to meet before they can be sold to the public.

Another 29 per cent of the paints they sampled contained lead levels between 600 ppm and 10,000 ppm, and 5 per cent contained between 90 ppm and 600 ppm. Only 27 per cent of the samples contained lead below the 90 ppm limit set by the World Health Organisation.

Yuyun said bright primary-coloured paints had some of the highest levels of lead detected by the lab. The most dangerous paint colour was orange, with 91 per cent of their orange samples containing more than 10,000 ppm of lead. Similarly high levels were found in 57 per cent of green samples, 55 per cent of yellow samples, and 18 per cent of red samples.

“Brightly coloured paints with high lead content are widely used in children’s facilities and public spaces,” Yuyun said. “Bright colours are good for stimulating children’s minds. But if the paints used contain high levels of lead, the impact can also be very bad for a child’s brain development.”

Indonesia does not yet have a legally binding regulation prohibiting the use of lead in paint production. The current national standard allows for up to 600 ppm of lead in organic, solvent-based decorative paints that can be sold to consumers.

“Our hope is that those paint companies that are still producing lead-based paints will transition to water-based paint products, which are much more environmentally friendly and safer for people’s health, especially children,” Yuyun said.

Lead is a heavy metal, making it very dangerous to human health, explained Dr. Andika Pratama, a pulmonologist at the University of North Sumatra’s teaching hospital. He said heavy metals can cause nervous system disorders that trigger a decrease in nervous system response, depression and loss of appetite.

Lead has also been shown to lead to long-term reductions in children’s IQs and systemic disorders, such as gastrointestinal disorders, abdominal pain, constipation and an increase in blood pressure. He said lead also causes bone disorders because it can interfere with the function of calcium.

Dr. Andika said sudden exposure to a large amount of lead, such as through accidental ingestion, can quickly cause clinical symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath and even respiratory failure. But the way most children are exposed is over time in small amounts. That kind of exposure can interfere with the production of red blood cells and impair neurological growth in children.

“These symptoms sometimes escape the attention of parents because the impact of lead is not like other diseases, where the symptoms are visible to the naked eye,” Dr. Andika said. “That is why parents need to be educated about these symptoms.”

Pushing for a lead paint ban

Fajri Fadhillah, the head of the pollution and environmental damage control division at the Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law, a nonprofit, said that based on an analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the cost burden on Asian countries caused by a decrease in IQ due to exposure to lead paints is nearly US$700 billion per year.

Fajri noted that the US has long been working to eliminate lead from homes and spends billions of dollars on removing lead from buildings each year. “That is not a small expense,” Fajri said.

He said the flow of lead into Indonesia starts with foreign suppliers of raw lead, which is sent to pigment manufacturers who sell to the distributors that sell pigments to paint producers.

Indonesia, Fajri said, needs to have a regulation prohibiting trade in lead-based paints. He said such a regulation would benefit both public health as well as paint producers themselves since it would prevent competitors from using lead as a way to undercut production costs.

Fajri also urged President Joko Widodo to use executive power to issue a regulation mandating that information regarding lead content be placed on paint packaging so that the public can make informed decisions.

The Indonesian government still largely relies on the paint industry to establish manufacturing regulations and monitor standards.

Markus Winarto, the secretary-general of the Indonesian Paint Manufacturers Association (APCI), said paint companies still make lead-based paints for many reasons. One of those is that lead pigments are both cheaper and more durable than water-based paints.

“It’s weather-resistant and the production process is also easier. Most importantly, there is still demand for it in the market,” Markus said.

He said current regulations allow for organic solvent-based paints to include lead content of up to 600 ppm, but added the APCI is working on revising that number down to 90 ppm, which would be in line with WHO standards.

However, Markus said this is still up for discussion among the association’s members. He said it would be difficult for smaller manufacturers to meet more stringent standards. Markus also noted that many of Indonesia’s smaller paint manufacturers are not members of the association, making standards enforcement difficult.

Nexus3 noted in its report that samples taken from 32 public playgrounds in the capital city, Jakarta, were found to have lead paint, some containing up to 100,000 ppm.

Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria responded to media coverage of the report by saying that the current administration only uses international standard paints for children’s facilities and that any paint with high lead content came from previous administrations. He said efforts would be made to remove the lead content from older facilities.

Indonesia is one of many countries where public health advocates are pushing for bans and restrictions on lead-based paints. According to the UN, 79 countries have legally binding regulations to limit the production, import and sale of lead paints, which is just 41 per cent of all countries.

The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, a partnership between UNEP and the WHO, is one of many organisations working to pass lead-based paint regulations in countries around the world and promote the eventual phaseout of all lead-based paints.

This story was published with permission from

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