Foreign manufacturers use lead paint not because they want to poison American children, but because lead paint is, “bright, durable, flexible, fast-drying, and cheap.” The domestic use of lead paint in residences, hospitals, and children’s products was banned in 1978, though lead paint is still widely used. Slate explains:
Paint manufacturers mix in different lead compounds depending on the color of the paint. Lead chromates, for example, can enhance a yellow or orange hue. Municipal workers often use lead paint because it resists the color-dimming effects of ultraviolet light: The double yellow line in the middle of the road? That’s loaded with lead. Paint manufacturers also add lead and other heavy metals to make paint stick better instead of flaking off. Price is also a factor: China mass-produces the stuff, and coloring agents like lead chromate are generally cheaper than organic pigments. (That said, added lead used to be a luxury. A house painter in the early 20th century would show up to a job with two buckets–one for the paint substrate, one for the lead powder. The more lead he added, the better the paint, the higher the price.)
Lead paint has other qualities that make it attractive to manufacturers. For one thing, it resists mildew, making it perfect for wood furniture and other surfaces likely to get wet. It’s also anti-corrosive: Ship makers have historically applied a coating of lead paint, often containing the red mineral litharge, to the bottom of metal ships’ hulls. (The Romans used lead paint, too–that’s why the paint on some of their ruins is so well-preserved.)
We once spoke with a painter who gushed about the beauty lead gave to white paint with the prideful reminiscence reserved for parents of honor students killed in Vietnam.
Why Do They Put Lead Paint in Toys? [Slate]