Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of paint containing more than 0.06 percent lead in buildings and on products accessible to children.

Summary of Event

Since antiquity, lead and its salts have been widely used by human society, because lead is a soft, easily worked metal with a very low melting point, and its salts make excellent paint pigments. For example, lead once made up the aqueduct pipes that carried the water from reservoirs to homes in ancient Rome. In fact, the word “plumber” derives from this ancient use of lead in the Roman water-supply systems, coming from plumbum, which is the Latin word for lead. Paint, lead content
Consumer Product Safety Commission;lead-containing paint[lead containing paint]
Consumer protection
[kw]Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints (Jan. 1, 1978)
[kw]Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints, Consumer (Jan. 1, 1978)
[kw]Commission Bans Lead Paints, Consumer Product Safety (Jan. 1, 1978)
[kw]Bans Lead Paints, Consumer Product Safety Commission (Jan. 1, 1978)
[kw]Lead Paints, Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans (Jan. 1, 1978)
Paint, lead content
Consumer Product Safety Commission;lead-containing paint[lead containing paint]
Consumer protection
[g]North America;Jan. 1, 1978: Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints[03110]
[g]United States;Jan. 1, 1978: Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints[03110]
[c]Health and medicine;Jan. 1, 1978: Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints[03110]
[c]Trade and commerce;Jan. 1, 1978: Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans Lead Paints[03110]
Steinfeld, Jesse L.
Wrenn, Grover C.

The toxicity of lead has been known since ancient times. Toxicity arises because the metal readily forms salts on contact with oxygen, acids, or bases, and these chemicals, for example, lead oxide or acetate, are very harmful to human beings. Lead—actually in its salts—is defined as being a toxic trace substance, which means that it is dangerous to humans at very low levels. Lead toxicity is seen most often as progressive anemia, kidney disease, and mental deterioration, which can ultimately be fatal. In fact, epidemic lead poisoning is thought by some historians to have been a very important contributor to the fall of ancient Rome, the result of the mental deterioration of its citizens who drank water highly contaminated with lead salts from Rome’s aqueducts.

Modern societal uses of lead and lead salts have included motor vehicle storage batteries, leaded gasoline, lead paint, newsprint and label colorings, decorative lead glass objects, plumbing and pipe solder, and lead bullets and fishing sinkers. All these items are potentially toxic to the people who use them, and lead is especially dangerous to young children.

Many concerned citizen groups, labor unions, and federal agencies have long sought to diminish the human exposure—especially that of children—to lead in the home, at school, and in the workplace. The use of lead salts in both paint and gasoline, the two leading contemporary contributors to lead-based general public health problems, is now restricted in the United States.

These bans are significant, because lead toxicity occurs wherever prolonged daily lead intake exceeds 2 milligrams (a pound contains 454,000 milligrams). Two milligrams is the maximum amount of lead from lead salts that the human body is able to excrete per day. Lead is excreted in the urine, and its relatively high levels in the urinary system are deemed responsible for lead-induced kidney disease. Over prolonged time periods, excess lead ingestion also produces anemia, mental retardation, and even death. Most people come in contact with well under 2 milligrams of lead per day and are thus viewed as being relatively safe from lead poisoning.

Lead industry workers and many painters constitute special occupational groups that are at high risk for lead poisoning, and legislation aimed at protecting them from exposure has been enacted. In addition, lead in the environment from past leaded-gasoline emissions puts the general population at some risk. The extent of this risk is a topic of considerable legal debate.

The serious problem of lead poisoning resulting from lead paint is becoming a legacy of the past, because none of the high-lead interior paints that contained large amounts of the toxic paint pigment white lead have been in wide use for about a quarter of a century. In addition, white-lead use in paint was curtailed by the 1971 federal Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act (1971)[Lead Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act] and by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) ban of 1978. The CPSC ban diminished to 0.06 percent or less the allowed lead content of most paints.

In spite of these government actions, the U.S. Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. has estimated that more than 10 million American citizens, including 15 to 17 percent of all school-age children, have paint-based toxic body-lead levels, as measured in milligrams per liter (about one quart) of blood. Furthermore, around a quarter of a million young Americans, most often the disadvantaged children who live in poor inner-city neighborhoods, are expected to develop lead poisoning each year.

The high risk of lead poisoning for the children of economically disadvantaged families begins with the presence on the walls of old dwellings of about 3 million tons of high-lead wall and ceiling paint, which is continually flaking off as a result of its age. A large number of these paint flakes fall to the floor or are otherwise within the reach of the undernourished and hungry children who inhabit old, substandard housing. These children eat the paint flakes, which have a sweet taste attributable to their high lead-salt content. Lead acetate, for example, is so sweet that it is called “sugar of lead.” Children may continue to eat the paint flakes over long periods, thus they develop toxic symptoms and may die unless antilead therapy, with chemicals called metal-chelating agents, removes the lead in their blood during the early stages of the process.

Very small amounts of ingested lead will produce toxic effects. For example, 0.1 milligrams per liter of blood causes somewhat lowered intelligence, 0.5 milligrams per liter reduces IQ (intelligence quotient) scores quite severely and leads to anemia symptoms, and more than 0.8 milligrams per liter causes irreversible mental retardation, which may end in coma and death. The CPSC 0.06 percent ban included all the lead paint that was in use in American homes, schools, hospitals, parks, playgrounds, and public buildings; all toys which are intended for any use by children; and all furniture made for any consumer use.

The CPSC stated that all American children having access to paint containing more than 0.06 percent lead were exposed to an unreasonable risk of lead poisoning that could not be adequately addressed in the absence of a ban on lead. The CPSC then noted that it was unequivocally clear that the lead poisoning process was cumulative and that it adversely affected the kidneys, the blood, and the nervous system. Furthermore, the commission cited the estimates made in the early 1970’s by former U.S. surgeon general Jesse L. Steinfeld, which projected about one-half million American preschoolers as having paint-derived, and unduly elevated, body-lead levels.

As further justification for the ban, the CPSC noted that the public’s need for paint that contained more than 0.06 percent lead was very limited, because more than 95 percent of latex paints and about 70 percent of oil-based paints already met the new standard. In the interest of fairness, however, items that must be painted with coatings having a higher lead content and that did not come in contact with children, such as military items, were exempted from this ban.

The commission also pointed out that ban-related paint availability levels, paint price changes, and any paint manufacturing disadvantages to the paint companies would be minimal. Their action statement ended with the comment that the ban was seen as being a reasonable and necessary way to eliminate or to reduce an unreasonable risk of lead poisoning in young children. The ban was viewed as being in the general public interest.


The first impact of the lead paint ban promulgated by the U.S. CPSC was to lower the levels of lead salts used in most paints to levels viewed by many as being inconsequential. Some individuals and citizen groups, however, have pointed out that the ban was not as effective or as far-reaching as it initially seemed to be. They have noted that 95 percent of latex paints and most oil-based paints being purchased for consumer use were already at the 0.06 percent lead level. In addition, lead paints for ban-exempt purposes, such as military vehicles and weapons, were still in use and were potentially dangerous.

One important impact of the CPSC action was that it made very clear to the American public that lead was a major danger and that old paint was a primary culprit. This has led to consumer group action and to both federal and state legislation that has sought to lower the lead paint levels in old houses and apartment buildings; to enhanced public awareness of the need to have at-risk young children tested for blood-lead levels early in life; and to many general efforts to remove lead use from other items in which it causes risk to members of the American public.

Efforts include a 1978 Occupational Safety and Health Administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule lowering permissible lead exposure in the workplace from 0.20 milligrams per workday to 0.05 milligrams. It was pointed out by Grover C. Wrenn, then OSHA director of health standards, that this action was cost-effective and would probably greatly lower the number of cases of occupationally derived lead-induced disease such as kidney disease and the resultant need for expensive dialysis therapy. The OSHA action was hailed by labor unions and fought by the lead industry.

In the arena of lead removal from homes, studies have pointed out that a number of problems minimize the impact of lead bans. The first problem is related to the provision of incentives, or coercive measures, intended to convince ghetto landlords to remove old paint. These actions have been deficient, because contemporary study shows that relatively few such dwellings have been rendered safe. Second, the regulation of lead paint use in the fifty American states is varied, and it is inadequate in many cases. Ongoing efforts to enhance abatement of lead paint beginning in the late 1970’s have led to some inroads, and proposed legislation is expected to add more strength to the lead-abatement movement.

Another important consequence of the lead paint ban has been the search by medical scientists for exact identification of the lead levels that cause risk to individuals, improved ways to remove lead from afflicted individuals, and the understanding of how to reverse aspects of lead poisoning deemed irreversible in 1978. Exploration of the effects of lead intake have shown that lead is toxic at much lower levels than those that were evident in 1978. It has been suggested that children’s blood-lead levels should be kept below 0.10 milligrams per liter, after periodic screening, and that intervention to lower these blood levels should begin at 0.15 milligrams per liter values.

As to treatment methodology, advances have been most evident in the development of better, less-toxic chelating agents. These agents, when given to people with excessive blood-lead levels, cause less discomfort than do the older forms of antilead therapy. In addition, early toxicity detection by lead screening appears to diminish the occurrence of the irreversible effects of lead poisoning by commencing treatment early in the course of lead poisoning. The means to diminish established consequences of lead toxicity are still being actively sought. Paint, lead content
Consumer Product Safety Commission;lead-containing paint[lead containing paint]
Consumer protection

Further Reading

  • “Ban of Lead Containing Paint and Certain Consumer Products Bearing Lead-Containing Paint.” In The Code of Federal Regulations: Commercial Practices. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994. This material codifies the September, 1977, ban of lead paint and lead paint-containing products promulgated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to begin on February 27, 1978. Contains sections on the ban’s scope and applications, definitions, exemptions, banned hazardous products, and findings of the commission.
  • Berkow, Robert, and Andrew J. Fletcher. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 18th ed. Whitehouse Station, N.J.: Merck Research Laboratories, 2006. Contains a brief but useful section on the characteristics, etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of lead poisoning. It also points out the more drastic effects in children than adults.
  • Centers for Disease Control. Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children: A Statement by the Centers for Disease Control. Atlanta: Author, 1991. Thorough pamphlet covers the topical issues carefully, including background, sources of lead exposure, the roles of health providers, state and local agencies, screening methods, and hazard management in the environment.
  • “A Lead Standard Tougher than Expected.” BusinessWeek, November 27, 1978, 36-38. This brief article exemplifies the federal, consumer, labor union, and lead industry responses to efforts at lead abatement.
  • Tiller, Jennifer. “Easing Lead Paint Laws: A Step in the Wrong Direction.” Harvard Environmental Law Review 18 (1994): 265-275. This effective article gives a solid overview of the problems associated with use of lead paint and regulation of its use, limitations of the lead-paint program at the time of writing, and proposed solutions. Includes many references on these issues.
  • Warren, Christian. Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Scholarly history of lead poisoning in the United States in the twentieth century is informative despite the fact that its tone sometimes strays from objectivity.

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