In this Q&A, we dive deeper into 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Manny Calonzo’s advocacy for a lead-free future in the Philippines. Learn how he got involved in the issue, his current projects, and key lessons learned from his campaign to persuade the Philippine government to ban lead paint.
Goldman Environmental Prize: How did you first become aware of lead contamination? How did you decide to begin working on the issue?
Manny Calonzo: I have been working on social development and human rights issues for over 30 years. Yet, the issue of lead contamination is relatively new to people in developing countries. We’ve been using paints without knowing that they were poisonous materials to be concerned about. In 2008, I took part in a global study that was an eyeopener for me. I collected paint samples and sent them to New Delhi for analysis. When we got the results, I was really shocked to find that the paints contained high concentrations of lead. So, that research provided the basis for the more systematic methods behind my work on lead paint.
GEP: Why is lead is an important environmental issue to pay attention to?
MC: Lead has been a known poison for ages, but its use in paint formulations has been allowed to continue for many years in developing countries. Lead was phased out of petrol in 2000 but not in paint, and that’s a serious cause for concern because many of those paint products are used in schools, day cares, and homes. The lead paints will chip off and contaminate surroundings and expose kids to very preventable hazards. The bottom line is: Why allow kids to get poisoned by a chemical that has long been phased out in developed countries, thereby causing childhood lead exposure, which is preventable?
GEP: How did you feel when you succeeded in your campaign in the Philippines?
MC: The law was signed on December 22, 2013, just three days before Christmas. I felt very happy and considered it the best gift the Philippine government could give to children. The strength of our campaign was the consistent messaging to support the protection of kids’ health and well-being. Those things you can’t argue with.
GEP: Now that lead paint has been banned in the Philippines, is there a clean-up process taking place for the already affected areas?
MC: Paint manufacturers together with my organization, EcoWaste Coalition, now have voluntary guidelines on lead paint removal. It’s only voluntary so doesn’t have the weight of legal regulation. Currently there’s no procedure on how to deal with lead contaminated waste. This system still needs to be developed. For now, it’s best that we prevent the use of lead paint because legacy waste issues are more complicated and costly.
GEP: Are you aware of other countries that also need to update their laws and standards on lead paint?
MC: Many countries don’t have any standards on lead paint to begin with. It’s a big struggle in developing regions. I am working in close coordination with other NGOs in the region to tackle this issue, including implementing my lead paint certification standard. The standard is a joint effort between our coalition and top manufacturers in the Philippines to participate and get certified. The first step is to work with NGO counterparts in other developing nations and provide them with the necessary tools and resources for them to conduct lead in paint studies. Data collection is key if you want to get the attention of the government.
GEP: What was your biggest lesson learned while working toward this cause?
MC: We need all the stakeholders to come together and address the issue in a collaborative and respectful manner. To succeed, we need the cooperation of all stakeholders, especially from the industry. Without cooperation, it’s hard to achieve something significant if it requires the participation and support of so many sectors. Gathering data and getting it out to the public was another important lesson. Through this campaign, I saw how data could be a key tool for pushing toward the change that needs to happen.
GEP: What are you currently working on? What is your aim for the next five years?
MC: The end is far from near. Lead paint will continue to be a big focus of mine for the next five years or so. There are other issues I want to jump in on, but I need to sustain my current campaign. Currently, I am an adviser of an international lead paint elimination campaign. My key task there is to support local groups undertaking initiatives to influence industry leaders and local officials from allowing lead paint. I am also helping other countries with lead paint studies, for example working with groups in Mongolia and Pakistan to analyze the paints and get reports published.