Environmental Talk: From China with lots of lead
Children visiting from UK admire toys at Garden City Shopping Mall, Kampala.

Environmental Talk: From China with lots of lead


Children visiting from UK admire toys at Garden City Shopping Mall, Kampala.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: October 23, 2007


Millions of toys manufactured in China are being internationally recalled by Mattel, a toy making company, amid fears they are a health hazard. Some carry high levels of toxic lead paint, while others include small magnets that can fall off and be swallowed, causing potentially fatal damage to children's intestines. There is a concern that young children chewing or biting on the toys could become ill if they swallowed the paint.


Besides occupational hazards to adults working with chemicals containing lead, the majority of lead poisoning occurs in children under the age of twelve. The main sources of poisoning are from ingestion of lead contaminated soil (this is less of a problem in countries like Uganda that no longer have leaded fuel sold at petrol station pumps) and from ingestion of lead dust or chips from deteriorating lead-based paints. Lead has also been found in drinking water. It can come from plumbing and fixtures that either are made of lead or have trace amounts of the element in them.

Lead is devastating to the human body. It inhibits oxygen and calcium transport and alters nerve transmission in the brain. Most lead poisoning occurs when people swallow lead paint chips or breathe in lead dust. The lead builds up in soft tissue (kidneys, bone marrow, liver, and brain) as in well as bones and teeth.

Studies show that even low concentrations of lead can cause permanent damage to humans including reduced IQ, learning disabilities, and shortened attention span. Some scientists believe that low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood can alter secretion of the human growth hormone resulting in stunted growth and obesity.

There are plenty of painted toys and other products that are imported into Uganda from China. While it is obvious that the Chinese government strives to ensure products made for export from China must meet international safety standards to avoid economical backlashes that could result from defective or dangerous products, many unscrupulous manufacturers still sell dangerous products that make it onto shelves of Ugandan shops/supermarkets. These manufacturers still employ paints that contain lead because such paint is much cheaper, is very shiny (which bodes well with children and some adults), dries fast (and therefore saves production times) and is more resistant to corrosion than other types of paint.

A typical Ugandan consumer is not likely to tell which product contains lead. Such a consumer therefore has to rely on the Uganda Bureau of Standards (UBOS) to protect him/her from such products. UBOS therefore has to be meticulous when testing all imported products into Uganda.

Nonetheless, with the high levels of smuggling that still survive in today's Uganda, it is possible that many goods make it into Ugandan households without being tested for safety at all. Besides losing the country revenue, smugglers endanger our lives. While the Uganda Revenue Authority tries its best to enforce Uganda's anti-smuggling laws, we should all be vigilant against such vices. Ugandans should stop buying smuggled goods knowingly. Such products may be cheaper to purchase but certainly do not sound cheap when you are lying on a hospital bed!

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: October 23, 2007
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.