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Toxic paint job: how mercury slid by the E.P.A.

Last summer a Detroit-area family painted the interior of their home. Ten days later, their 4-year-old son became irritable and shunned light. He suffered uncontrollable tremors, he lost his ability to walk, his fingers and toes turned pink and his skin sloughed off. The boy was diagnosed as having mercury poisoning, also called acrodynia or pink disease. The Michigan Department of Public Health traced the mercury to a house paint called Ultra Latex, produced by the aptly named Mercury Paint Company of Detroit. The family has filed suit against the company.

In the past thirty years only one other case of acrodynia resulting from paint has been reported to the Centers for Disease Control, but health officials there are increasingly concerned that mercury poses an environmental hazard as great as that of lead |see box on page 228~. Not only may mercury added to water-based paint as an in-can preservative and pesticide be poisoning people in their homes as they inhale it but airborne mercury escapes into the environment, settles in rivers and lakes, transforms into its lethal organic form (methyl mercury), accumulates in fish and then finds its way onto the dinner table. It was mercury in this form that tragically poisoned a fishing community in Minamata Bay, Japan, in the mid- I 950s. A recent study by Wisconsin's Bureau of Air Management deemed paint responsible for nearly half the airborne mercury in the state. Emissions from incinerators and from the burning of fossil fuels, not to mention the mercury in paint emptied down drainpipes, all flood the environment with this dangerous heavy metal.

Mercury can cause severe damage to the central nervous system as it accumulates in the body, and it can lead to deformity and retardation in fetuses. Unlike lead, it is virtually unregulated. Although safety levels for mercury in paint have been set by the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no surveillance. No federal agency tests paints to see if legal limits are exceeded. No federal agency records how much mercury is used by paint manufacturers. No federal law requires that it be listed as an ingredient. And it appears that only one state, Michigan, has an agency that tracks mercury production and use. "We are putting people at risk all over the country," says Dr. Ruth Etzel, C.D.C. medical epidemiologist. The few reported cases "don't begin to represent |incidence~. I am sure there are lots that happen."

Because of its antiseptic qualities, the heavy metal was a common treatment for syphilis and diarrhea and was used in teething powder for infants until 1950. Many doctors are now unfamiliar with the syndrome, says Dr. Thomas Clarkson of the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York State. Like lead poisoning, mercury poisoning is difficult to diagnose. And because the symptoms-joint pain, muscular weakness, memory loss, nausea-are nonspecific and variable, "many kids out there may have subtle changes, |such as~ hyperactivity or difficulty concentrating,' says Dr. Dave Wade of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which regulates pesticides. "How many parents chalk it off to a stage the kid was going through or take him to a shrink?'

As early as 1963, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote, "It seems clear that manufacturers should label such paint as dangerous for use indoors in poorly ventilated rooms." But if the federal recognition of the hazards of lead seems sluggish-the dangers of lead-based paint were known in the 1920s but regulated only in 1971, when the federal government established the allowable level of lead in paint at 0.5 percent, and in 1978, when this level was reduced to 0.06 percent-it is lightning-quick compared with mercury.

Prompted by international reports of mercury poisoning, as well as a case in Arizona that left one child retarded, the E.P.A. moved to ban mercury from paint in 1972. Three years and 4,466 pages of documentation later, E.P.A. administrative law judge Bernard Levinson concluded that mercury posed minimal" risk and that "in those cases where there are no adequate or effective substitutes ... the benefits from the use of mercurials outweigh the risks." (Despite Judge Levinson's opinion, many large paint companies - Olympic Stain and Glidden among them - stopped using mercury in interior paint in the early 1970s, citing alternatives and clean factory conditions as effective, though more expensive, guards against spoilage.)

Judge Levinson's decision was overruled in 1976 by E.P.A. Administrator Russell Train. In his decision, which characterized some of the industry's evidence as more optimistic than scientifically cautious," Train ruled that the use of mercury in paint caused "unreasonable adverse effects.' But several months later, after being petitioned by three companies and the National Paint and Coatings Association, Train overturned his own reversal of Levinson's decision and mercury was cleared for use in water-based paint.

The E.P.A. staff was baffled. 'It caught us totally by surprise," says Thomas Adanczyk, deputy chief of the E.P.A.'s herbicide-fungicide branch. Adanczyk, who was then chief of the branch, adds that he cannot remember any explanation offered by Train.

Neither can Train. Fourteen years later, he can recall the uses of mercury that were in question-including the treatment of golf courses to prevent mold growth - but not why he changed his mind. "I can't for the life of me remember," says Train, now chair of the World Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Foundation. "I don't remember any other decision I made that I reversed. I'm sure I did quite a bit of soul-searching before."

Clearly, many in the paint industry endorse Train's final decision. If mercury really posed a problem, there would be many reports of acrodynia, says Charles Soberman, president of the Mercury Paint Company. Soberman denies that Ultra Latex was responsible for the 4-year-old child's poisoning. 'In the last 25-30 years, not only have there been no proven adverse health effects, but there have only been two claims."

This argument infuriates Dr. Jerry Poje, environmental toxicologist at the National Wildlife Federation. "It is immoral. We can't wait for the human population to become diseased and then say, Oh, let's address it,"' says Dr. Poje.

Who appointed |the paint industry~ the procurer of life and death in our society?"

Soberman contends that the form of mercury used in Ultra Latex, phenylmercuric acetate, is not toxic and does not evaporate, so it cannot get into people's lungs. But according to the C.D.C., PNU breaks down into mercury, which then vaporizes minutes after it is applied to walls. It continues to do so for many months. In 1980 in Argentina, between 7,000 and 10,000 infants were exposed to phenyl mercury, a similar compound. The compound was being used to kill bacteria on diapers and was absorbed through the infants' skin. At least ten developed acrodynia.

Soberman's position is supported by at least one physician. "I am not sure that level of poisoning could come from just fumes," says Dr. Leonard Goldwater, who submitted a statement of support to the Mercury Paint Company's lawyers. Dr. Goldwater adds that, if mixed according to federal standards for mercury content, and With people handling it in a sensible fashion, I would not expect any harm to occur." This is the same argument offered by the industry with regard to lead, counters Dr. Poje. "That story is so old, so tiresome, so tedious. They'll say it was a misapplication. They'll say |the child~ ate it or poured it over his head or drank it. That it was some human ignorance."

With no labels heralding the presence of mercury in paint, how can consumers make informed decisions? Short of consulting a chemist, they cannot. If the paint industry really is unconcerned, "then they shouldn't have a problem with people knowing the paint has mercury in it," says Dr. Poje.

Without labeling, consumers must rely on the E.P.A. to insure the safety of the paint, but, "since paints are not pesticides, they are not required to be registered and they fall through a loophole," says the E.P.A.'s Adanczyk. The E.P.A. does record how much mercury is sold nationally, however, and it does set standards for manufacturers who mix paint. The Ultra Latex brand had three times the amount of mercury permissible by law, according to the Michigan Department of Public Health.

The National Paint and Coatings Association, which represents nearly 90 percent of the industry, claims that the use of mercury as a pesticide in paint is declining. But in 198,7, paint manufacturers were using over a third more mercury than they did in 1973, according to E.P.A. and industry figures. In 1988, over 357 million gallons of water-based paint (both interior and exterior) were produced in the United States. An informal E.P.A. estimate says 240 million gallons of this paint could contain mercury.

Michigan's follow-up studies suggest the problem is widespread. Nine of the twenty-seven paint manufacturers in the state use mercury, according to John Hesse of the Michigan Department of Public Health. The department tested twenty homes painted in the four months prior to investigation, and all but one had air levels of mercury higher than the federal occupational standard, which is based on an eight-hour rather than a twenty-four-hour exposure. The E.P.A. monitors only general levels of mercury in the atmosphere, which does not address the potentially debilitating accumulation of mercury in the body, adds Dr. Poje.

As innumerable chemicals and heavy metals inundate the environment, reports of chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies and other nonspecific sensitivities are on the rise. Mercury may be yet another toxin without "direct manifestations, but which can lead to chronic symptoms," says Dr. Poje. In January the Michigan Departments of Public Health and Agriculture petitioned the E.P.A. to ban mercury in paint. In response, the agency has reopened the issue and is tracking down PMA through mercury distributors who sell to paint manufacturers, a painstaking process that may take months or years to complete. The C.D.C. is completing a report to inform doctors of the potential danger of mercury in paint and of the symptoms of acrodynia. And the Detroit-area boy, home after five months in the hospital, is learning how to walk again.
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Title Annotation:Environmental Protection Agency; includes related article on lead poisoning
Author:Holloway, Marguerite
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 19, 1990
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