Dangerous metal residues found in lipstick, nail polish

Jun 26, 2024

The preliminary assessment report on Rapid Market Screening in Uganda has revealed that some cosmetics contain over 20% of lead, compared to 10% recommended globally.

L-R: Otala, Tebandeke Ruyoka and Uganda Industrial Research Institute senior scientist Percy Arishaba during the meeting on pollution at Hotel African that was geared towards addressing lead poisoning in Uganda at Africana Hotel on June 4. (Photo by Nanyonga Nancy)

By Violet Nabatanzi and Agnes Kyotalengerire
Journalists @New Vision


A new study has revealed that brightly coloured cosmetics such as lipstick, nail polish, bleaching creams and body jelly on Ugandan market contain high levels of lead, a highly toxic metal that is linked to delayed conception in women and infertility in men, among other health consequences.

The preliminary assessment report on Rapid Market Screening in Uganda has revealed that some cosmetics contain over 20% of lead, compared to 10% recommended globally.

Other items in which high levels of lead contamination were found include local herbal concoctions of herbs and clay, commonly known as emmumbwa and foodstuffs grown in wetlands like yams and rice; metallic cookware and paint. Communities near dumping sites and where recycling of used lead acid car batteries takes place are also at high risk of substance poisoning.

 Ruyoka said  there is need  to have a  regulatory  framework  to address  imports  coming into the country, especially cosmetics for women.

Ruyoka said there is need to have a regulatory framework to address imports coming into the country, especially cosmetics for women.


Lead is a heavy metal. It is used in lead-acid batteries, as a colouring agent, paints and metal alloyed as shielding materials, smelters, printing presses, and so on. It can easily accumulate in the body causing organ damage, for example, to the brain, heart, renal (kidney) system and reproductive system, with children and women being more vulnerable.

Experts say that the exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriages stillbirths, premature births and low birth weight.

Lead also contributes to infertility in men, but in women it poses a long-term danger of having babies with congenital abnormalities or disabilities. It also poses a long-term harm in adults of increased risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and kidney damage, Dr Samuel Etajak of Makerere University School of Public Health said.

“Exposure to lead may affect libido, semen quality by declining sperm count, motility (death), viability and sperm DNA integrity. These alterations lead to a reduction in fertility potential, high chances of miscarriages, pre-term birth and so on in a partner,” another 2018 study published by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest biomedical library, said.

“Lead exposure also affects female reproduction by impairing menstruations, reducing fertility potential, delaying conception time, altering hormonal production, circulation, affecting pregnancy and its outcome and so on.”


Food is another major pathway through which human beings can be exposed to lead. Just like emmumbwa whose raw material comes from wetlands, the same study findings showed that foods got from wetlands such as cereals like rice, fish and yams also contain elevated levels of lead. The report reveals that wetlands contain elevated levels of lead because of wastes or effluents that are damped there from factories.

Findings showed that foods got in wetlands such as cereals like  rice, fish and yams also contain elevated levels of lead

Findings showed that foods got in wetlands such as cereals like rice, fish and yams also contain elevated levels of lead

As a result, 6% of sampled food items contained lead putting people at risk of ingesting the deadly heavy metal. Cooking utensils and paint are also among the products containing high levels of lead, according to the study. It showed that 73% of metallic cookware sampled contained lead concentrations exceeding 100 part per million (ppm). The samples were primarily of aluminium, although this category also included some items made from brass, copper and iron alloys.

Similarly, 8% of ceramic cookware had lead concentrations exceeding the reference level of 100 ppm. This, consequently provides a substantial exposure route due to leaching of lead from the metallic and ceramic cookware into foodstuffs, experts said. However, all spices samples tested showed no lead contamination.


The same report found that emmumbwa has lead poisoning levels of 100%. This is because the clay used to make emmumbwa is picked from wetlands that are already contaminated with the deadly heavy metal.

Although cosmetics are often sought after by women and some men in the bid to enhance beauty, the lead component in them pauses health dangers, Raymond Ruyoka, the board chairperson of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, the agency that spearheaded the research, said.

“As a woman, you may be happy that you are getting minerals from clay, but the impact from lead is huge on your health as well as on the unborn baby,” he added.

The alliance, a collaborative body made up of more than 60 members and dozens of observers, conducted the study in collaboration with the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) with support from Pure Earth, a New York City-based international not-for-profit organisation.

The assessment report was prepared under NEMA’s lead exposure reduction project and provides an overview of studies conducted on lead pollution in Uganda over a number of years. The Rapid Market Screening conducted by Pure Earth, ranked Uganda, fifth out of the 25 countries where the assessment on food products, cooking utensils and cosmetics was conducted.

The other countries included Armenia; Azerbaijan; Bangladesh; Bolivia; Colombia; Egypt; Georgia; Ghana; the Indian states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh; Indonesia; Kazakhstan and Kenya Others are Kyrgyzstan; Mexico; Nepal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Peru; the Philippines; Tajikistan; Tanzania; Tunisia; Türkiye and Vietnam.

In Uganda, the study was conducted in three districts of Kampala, Lira and Mbarara, specifically in St Balikuddembe Market as well as Lira and Mbarara central markets


Lead is a key pigment commonly added to decorative paints used indoors and also serves to increase paint fi lm durability, moisture resistance and as a drying agent.

According to the study, 16% of 32 paint samples from Uganda intended for large surfaces exhibited lead levels exceeding 90 ppm.

Dr Emmanuel Tebandeke, head of the department of chemistry at Makerere University and co-ordinator of the Lead Exposure Mitigation project in Uganda, noted that when the paint becomes old, and starts to peel off, it then releases lead into homesteads and the environment.


Another significant source of exposure is recycling of used lead acid car batteries which is a thriving business around the Kampala suburbs of Bwaise, Kisenyi and Katwe, Dr Tebandeke said. An average car battery contains up to 10kg of lead which makes its recovery from used batteries lucrative.

“In the informal sector, used car batteries are recycled by smelting to make cookware products,” he said.

During the process of smelting old batteries to make cookware, some lead spills into the ground, consequently getting washed into the wetlands. What worsens the situation is the fact that informal used lead acid batteries recycling and smelting operations are conducted in the open air, in densely populated urban areas and often with no pollution control measures, sometimes in the presence of children.

Lead exposure remains a significant global health risk internationally. As of this year, it is estimated that lead poisoning affects one in three children worldwide. The vast majority of whom live in low-and-middle-income countries, where research into exposure sources has been limited.

The 2019 World Health Organisation report indicated that more than 1 million deaths globally were attributed to lead exposure.


Some of the fuel used in Uganda has a component of lead in it because the old car engines on the market were designed to take leaded fuel to allow the smooth running of the engine. However, lately there is a transition from the substance to cleaner fuel which is lead-free, according to Dr Etajak.


The Uganda preliminary assessment report was unveiled during the recent second stakeholders working group meeting that was geared towards addressing lead poisoning in Uganda at Africana Hotel on June 4.

Dr Tebandeke said unlike other metals, lead has not been given adequate attention despite wrecking a lot of health-related havoc on communities in Uganda and other developing countries.

The chairperson of Parliament’s committee on environment and natural resources, Dr Emmanuel Otaala, said although the country’s vision is to transform from a backward peasantry economy to an industrialised economy by 2024, there is a need to plan and decide where to set up industries.

He said there is a problem with allocating wetlands to investors, consequently most industries are dumping effluents into swamps, rivers and lakes, some of which contain toxic metals, including lead.

“This means we are all consumers of lead which is a heavy metal that can have huge a health impact once it accumulates in the body,” he noted.

With funding from Pure Earth, the GAHP is collaborating with NEMA to implement a project on reduction of lead concentration in Uganda in which an inter-ministerial and multi-sectoral technical working group has been established to strengthen co-ordination of government agencies in addressing lead pollution.

The working group has generated a joint action plan to address lead exposure by improving the policy and regulatory environment. In developed countries such as the US, epidemiological evidence has driven the successful removal of lead from the gasoline and paint industries, resulting in reduced blood lead levels in the population.

Dr Otaala advised that as researchers are working towards developing a policy, they should also scrutinise to see whether there are gaps in the regulatory framework to guard the population against lead exposure.

Ruyoka said there is need to have a regulatory framework to address imports coming into the country, especially cosmetics for women.

“The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) should thoroughly check imports to ensure no lead is coming into the country, and this requires a policy by the Government to support UNBS to ably do that,” he said.

Dr Etajak urged the public to always read the material safety data sheet or labels before buying cosmetics. These safety data sheets are usually inserted in the product package and it provides the composition of materials used to manufacture the cosmetics you intend to buy.

He also advised the public to use water paint; which is washable and does not contain a lot of lead as opposed to oil paint. Dr Innocent Ocaye from NEMA said focus should be put on programmes that can create awareness amongst the population, for example, the manufacturers, such that they can be mindful of the environment and the communities to avoid areas that can be contaminated.

He also said blood-lead-level screening should be conducted among people living near waste disposal sites, recycling of batteries and mining areas to determine how much lead is present within the community and the appropriate treatment offered to the affected.

Dr Ocaye said hotspots where there is a lot of lead poisoning should be identified and measures to safeguard the public taken. The other proposed interventions include considering use of other alternative products that do not contain Lead.


The same study discovered that children who live in the community near Kiteezi dumping site had significant levels of lead in their blood of up to 20.5% which is greater than the allowable 10µg/dL threshold.

The current threshold for lead toxicity, defined as a blood lead level of 10µg/dL, was adopted by the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1991 and the World Health Organisation in 1995. Experts said the children with high levels of lead in the blood suffer developmental and intellectual impairment. The widespread exposure routes also suggests a critical public health concern for Uganda, they added.

If a pregnant mother has lead in her body, there is a potential of passing it on to the unborn child. In addition, a nursing mother can pass on lead to her baby during breastfeeding. Dr Etajak said children are at increased risk because in many circumstances they are more likely to ingest lead than adults.

He added that ingested lead is more harmful to their developing bodies. Dr Etajak said metabolic rate, consumption of food, oxygen exchange in the bodies of children is at a higher rate compared to adults because their bodies need more nutrients for growth and development.

“When impurities are introduced into their bodies, they interfere with the functionality of different organs. If they accumulate in the brain, the child may develop tumours and if they get to the kidneys, they may end up with renal failure in the body” he noted.

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