When it comes to paints used on local houses and walls, most people consider its colors, quality and durability of the paint, but aren’t concerned about its negative impact on human health.
Many paints contain lead which is a neurotoxin; a poison that acts on the nervous system and poses grave health risks to people’s health, especially children’s health.
Regulations on the use of lead in paints don’t exist in Bhutan and there is no safety standard either, while in other countries, the use of lead has been phased out or has been restricted in many consumer products because of the serious health impacts in children and fetuses. The United States of America has a limit of 90 parts per million (ppm) in paint, while India does not have mandatory norms, but has been set voluntary limit at 1, 000 ppm.
Lead paints are seen freely available in the local markets with no restrictions in any form.
Dr Nima Wangchuk of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) country office in Thimphu confirmed that there is no such permissible limit set for use of lead in paint in Bhutan.
He said it is a high time the authorities come out with some rules. “We don’t have regulations, but we are trying to do a national chemical profile within this year, the funds for which are already in place,” he said.
He also added, “We are trying to recruit one consultant and update the national chemical profile from which we will get the update list of all the chemicals, both which are exported from outside as well as those which are manufactured in the country though it is hardly seen in our country.”
In the absence of the chemical profile, he said, “We are not able to do much on chemicals and there are so many chemicals coming in Bhutan and most chemicals are carcinogenic.” The top three prominent chemicals he said are asbestos, benzene and formaldehyde.
He explained that asbestos, which causes lung cancer, is used mostly in construction as an insulator in room ceilings.
“We will be having an advocacy program on that,” he said.
Dr Nima added that children are affected the most due to their low immunity to the neurotoxin.
Besides the impact on human health, the use of lead also affects the environment.
Health ministry’s director general Dr Ugen Dophu, in an earlier interview said, the painters in Bhutan who do not use gloves and masks are susceptible to lead poisoning by way of inhaling it.
Lead can also be absorbed through the skin and enters into the blood, spreads into the liver, spleen, kidney, bone marrow, and other organs.
However, in Bhutan, it is normally the adults who are affected because small children, unlike in other countries, don’t work in workshops or as painters.
“If people have a constant touch with paint, it would get absorbed and it will get deposited in soft tissues, causing normal functioning to get abnormal,” Dr Ugyen said.