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In the Field: Anti-Lead Paint Warrior Manny Calonzo is Just Getting Started

October 18, 2018

This is a blog post by Myriah Cornwell, Program Officer at the Goldman Environmental Prize. Prior to the 2018 Prize Ceremony, Myriah visited winner Manny Calonzo in the Philippines to learn about his advocacy and get a first-hand look at his work.

The bright red and yellow children’s table and chair are stacked in the corner of Manny Calonzo’s Manila office—spoils from his battle against lead paint. Stamped with the trademarked McDonald’s “M,” the table and chair are souvenirs from a birthday party for Manny’s grandnephew. Out of curiosity, Manny tested the lead levels of the red and yellow paint and, to his surprise, found it contained lead at more than 50,000 parts per million (ppm); the legal limit for lead in paint in the US is 90ppm.

Manny at the EcoWaste Coalition office in Quezon City, where he is currently communications officer

Manny contacted McDonald’s and shared his analysis. At the time, the Philippines did not have a standard for limiting lead in paint, but McDonald’s responded by recalling the product. The table and chair now take up space in Manny’s cramped office, but serve as an important reminder of how prevalent lead paint is and the vigilance required to stop its spread.

As an activist, Manny has fought against environmental toxins in the Philippines for decades. Although lead paint was long believed to be a non-issue after standards were set in many Western nations, scientists studying paint sold in developing countries found disturbingly high lead levels. Even low levels of lead exposure can impair children’s cognitive function. Childhood lead poisoning can have lifelong health impacts, including learning disabilities, reduced IQ, anemia, and disorders in coordination, visual, spatial, and language skills. Concerned about the scientific findings, Manny set his sights on the scourge of lead paint in the Philippines.

The thing about paint is that it’s everywhere. It’s on the walls of homes and schools. Playgrounds and toys are covered in paint. Candy wrappers can contain lead paint. Even the finger-paints children play with may contain dangerously high levels of lead.

To tackle this, Manny works behind the scenes, avoiding the spotlight. His gentle presence can camouflage the intensity and power of his advocacy. Manny’s persistent campaigning spurred the Philippine government to mandate lead safe paint, and he convinced the paint industry to collaborate with him rather than oppose his efforts to transform the paint industry.

Manny conducts regular outreach in the community to inform students and consumers on lead paint issues

When I visited Manny in Manila, I joined him at an outreach event he helped organize at a local school. Manny busied himself on the sidelines, avoiding the crush of media, which included CNN Philippines, eager to interview the event’s organizers. The event was a big success, with the Assistant Minister of Health speaking to the students as well as a Filipino beauty queen urging kids to take care of the Earth.

Yet Manny barely paused to celebrate. After the school event, he took me to a community basketball court. The gate was covered in bright yellow paint, a paint that Manny worried contains high levels of lead. He wanted to come back and test it. For Manny, the fight against lead paint has just begun.

Myriah Cornwell is a social scientist with 10 years of experience in international conservation, environmental justice, and natural resource management. In her previous roles at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, Myriah made grants on capacity building, conservation coalitions, environmental policy, and scientific research. She has conducted and published research on grassroots networks for biodiversity conservation. Myriah holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Reed College and a PhD from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She joined the Prize in 2015.

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