Illustration by John Watson

The project to save children from poisonous lead paint

Clare Donaldson, joint head of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project, travels the world to track down a silent, toxic killer
May 10, 2023

The upside of using lead in paint is that it bestows a pleasing finish: colourful and durable. The downside is that application and removal generates dust that, in small quantities, ends up in people’s mouths. Once ingested, the lead atoms have a nasty propensity for being mistaken by the body for the non-poisonous metals it uses in day-to-day chemical processes. This leads to a dizzying array of health problems, among which are cognitive impairment, particularly in children; adults become likelier to contract kidney and heart problems, both of which can be fatal. Not so pleasing a finish, after all. 

Britain nearly stamped out fatal lead exposure in the second half of the 20th century, but much of the world has yet to catch up. Some countries have laws that proscribe lead paint, but they are not always enforced. Because of this and other unregulated sources, across the world, 815m children have high levels of lead in their blood and 900,000 people are killed by it each year.

Clare Donaldson is trying to save their lives. Donaldson, 30, jointly heads the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (Leep) with Lucia Coulter, a friend she met while studying at Cambridge University. Leep, which was founded in 2020, conducts tests of paints bought in shops in countries with high rates of lead exposure, supports governments in implementing regulation and helps manufacturers come up with ways of replacing lead in their paint formulae. Leep estimates that its current paint programmes could prevent lead exposure in around two million children.

There’s this period where my job is waiting for paint to dry

Donaldson is not long back from Nairobi, having been there for a UN meeting, when I visit her at Leep’s office in Marylebone. (The organisation has been donated office space by Coulter’s brother-in-law, Ali Abdaal, a successful podcaster and YouTuber.) She is running low on sleep, but still upbeat and sharp. 

Her work requires plenty of travel. Donaldson describes beating the streets of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, this time last year. In partnership with the country’s Environment Protection Agency, Donaldson tracked down oil-based paint, which is the most likely kind to contain lead, in shops and markets. She spoke to shopkeepers, followed tips, and piled cans of paint into her team’s car. “It felt a bit like an Apprentice task!” Donaldson says.

Having rounded up the paint samples, the next task is to put a spot of each on a piece of plastic. Before the paint is sent to the lab, it solidifies over the course of a week or two. “There’s this period where my job is waiting for paint to dry,” says Donaldson wryly. 

The work does not offer the immediate psychological gratification of saving a life in-person—success equates to abstract millions not getting poisoned—but Donaldson finds it rewarding. “Even though the overall timeline is long,” she says, “there are just so many intermediate steps that feel good—even receiving an email from someone we’re working with about the next steps in the project.” 

But she is under pressure. She and her colleagues know that dawdling on their part affects thousands of children. “Burning out would be really bad. It’s important to stop that from happening, particularly in a young organisation.”

Ignorant of its poisonous nature, people around the world are still putting lead paint on their walls. Policymakers and regulators are sometimes not aware. “A nice thing about this work is that everyone is on board once they have the information. No one wants to have their kids poisoned, no one likes the idea of painting their walls with poisonous paint. So that’s not the difficult part. The difficult part is just making sure the people who can do something about this know about the issue, and making sure they have the resources to do that.”