Manny Calonzo

2018 Goldman Prize Recipient
Islands and Island Nations

  • The Philippines
  • Pollution & Waste

Manny Calonzo spearheaded an advocacy campaign that persuaded the Philippine government to enact a national ban on the production, use, and sale of lead paint. He then led the development of a third-party certification program to ensure that paint manufacturers meet this standard. As of 2017, 85% of the paint market in the Philippines has been certified as lead safe.

An environmental poison

The hazards of lead paint have been well-documented and regulated in developed nations for more than 40 years. But lead paint remains a major environmental health issue in developing countries—including the Philippines. Studies conducted in the early 2000s revealed startlingly high levels of lead in decorative paint in more than 30 developing countries—showing lead levels routinely above 600 parts per million (ppm), and often higher than 10,000 ppm. The US allows lead levels of no more than 90 ppm.

Traditionally, lead is added to paint to help it dry smoother, faster, and be more opaque. High quality, cost-effective alternatives to lead ingredients exist and are used in developed countries. Unlike many environmental health issues, the science on lead poisoning is indisputable. Studies have shown that the presence of lead paint on home interiors and exteriors is strongly linked to lead levels in children’s blood. Over time, paint on surfaces will chip and deteriorate, which releases lead into the dust and soil around homes, schools, and other locations. Children playing in these environments get the soil or dust on their hands and ingest it through normal hand-to-mouth contact.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin; 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 physical, visual, spatial, and language skills.

Taking initiative and leading the way

Manny Calonzo grew up in the city of Makati in metro Manila and has worked on consumer and human rights issues for over 30 years. He is a past president of the EcoWaste Coalition, a Philippine network of more than 150 community, church, school, environmental, and health groups that work for sustainable solutions to waste, climate change, and the control of toxic chemicals. After his term as president ended, he launched the EcoWaste campaign for lead-safe paint. He works to protect his fellow Filipinos and support and advise his counterparts in other Asian nations on lead contamination.

Making friends of opponents, building consensus

In 2008, spurred by mounting international concerns about lead paint, Calonzo created a national, evidence-based campaign in the Philippines to eliminate lead paint. Paint sold in the Philippines had not been part of international studies, so Calonzo organized scientific research on lead content in paints. In 2009, EcoWaste found that the majority of paint sold in the Philippines contained levels of lead above 90 ppm, and more than 40% of the paint contained lead levels over 10,000 ppm.

Under Calonzo’s leadership, EcoWaste conducted studies over the next four years, examining the lead content of paint and dust found in the environment surrounding Philippine homes, schools, and daycare centers. Attracting significant media attention, these studies were critical in establishing that high lead levels were ubiquitous and dangerous for Filipino children. Over the course of the campaign, Calonzo organized more than 100 public and media events to raise awareness about the prevalence of lead paint, and called for a mandatory standard for lead in paint.

Calonzo built alliances with members from the health sector and academia, and organized press conferences to provide expert opinions on the hazards of lead exposure. He reached out to the paint industry to build partnerships and, ultimately, secured its support for eliminating lead in paint.

In December 2013, the Philippine government announced the Chemical Control Order, establishing a legal maximum of 90 ppm for lead in paint. Recognizing the need for monitoring adherence to the policy, Calonzo worked with the paint industry and developed a plan for a voluntary, third-party program to certify that paints contain less than 90 ppm of lead. He and his fellow activists sought the certification to allow consumers to distinguish between lead safe paints and those that contained unknown levels of lead.

In July 2016, the two leading paint companies operating in the Philippines were certified as lead-safe by the program that Calonzo helped create. By January 2017, 85% of the paint market had been certified as lead safe and Philippine schools now require use of certified paint. This achievement protects millions of Filipino children under the age of six from lead exposure.

Calonzo is now spreading the Philippine model across Asia, partnering with local organizations to oversee studies of lead in paint in Mongolia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and introducing the certification program to paint brands in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

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