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Synthesis/Regeneration 41   (Fall 2006)

Sherwin-Williams: Covering Our Communities with Toxics

Report by the Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now (ACORN)

The Sherwin-Williams Company is one of the primary culprits in the story about how lead paint continues to poison children across America. Their image is that of a friendly, neighborhood paint store, just down the street. This image belies their century-long record of contributing to serious environmental hazards in communities across the country.

Sherwin-Williams is a multinational corporation with consolidated net sales in 2005 of $7.19 billion. They operate the largest number of specialty paint stores in the United States. Because of its size and market share, Sherwin-Williams has the largest obligation of any paint manufacturer to take the lead in being environmentally conscientious. This report examines if the company has lived up to this obligation.

First – Selling lead paint while knowing it was toxic

Sherwin-Williams continued to sell lead-based paint for decades after they knew it was dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older, run-down buildings is the most common source of lead exposure for children. Lead poisoning is one of the most common environmental child health problems in the United States. Caused by high levels of lead in the blood, effects of lead poisoning can include learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death. Each year over 300,000 children under the age of five suffer from lead poisoning.

There is evidence dating back to 1899 that the Sherwin-Williams Company knew that lead-based paint was poisonous.

An estimated 25 million homes in the United States contain lead hazards. The cost of containing or abating this danger ranges from $20 billion to $170 billion, depending on the extent of the cleanup. Most of the burden of testing for lead and lead remediation has fallen on the government and property owners. Some cities and states have been trying to sue the companies who sold lead-based paint. The first successful suit was in the state of Rhode Island where it was decided in February 2006 that three companies, including Sherwin-Williams, were liable for creating a public nuisance. The amount of money these companies will have to pay will be the next step in that case. Other cases in California and New Jersey are moving ahead.

There is evidence dating back to 1899 that the Sherwin-Williams Company knew that lead-based paint was poisonous. Despite this knowledge, they sold lead-based paint from 1910 into the 1970s and manufactured it directly from 1910 – 1947. During the 20th century prior to 1978 when lead-based paint was banned in the US, various paint company associations advised paint manufacturers on how to dispel the fear about lead in paint. Sherwin-Williams itself in a 1971 memo, even though it knew that the days of lead-based were numbered, directed their factories not to convert to a new formula for their paint until they had depleted their inventories of paint with leaded zinc. Right to the end they were selling lead paint, despite the health concerns they had known about for over 70 years.

Second – Violating attorneys general agreement

Sherwin-Williams is failing to do lead-dust education as required in an agreement with the attorneys general of all 50 states. That agreement requires all paint retailers to provide point-of-purchase written materials to aid homeowners in safely painting and repairing houses that might still have lead-based paint in them. Testers went to 40 Sherwin-Williams paint stores and found that 15 of them, over 1/3 of the stores, did not have the required information to give to consumers. Since all of the stores are company-owned it is clear that the company is not properly training its staff to protect the health of the public.

Third – Contributing to air pollution

Sherwin-Williams is currently fighting state and EPA regulations to control volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which contribute to ozone, smog, asthma and respiratory ailments. VOCs are emitted when paints and stains are used, and they contribute to ozone and therefore smog, which in turn contributes to asthma and other respiratory problems. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states have been working for many years to control ozone under the Clean Air Act. Many parts of the United States are not in compliance with the EPA’s 8-Hour Ozone Standard. It has been estimated that compliance with this standard would result in 1,500 fewer hospital and emergency room admissions and 300,000 more days that children could attend school per year.

Sherwin-Williams is choosing to pay for the privilege of polluting the air rather than reformulating their products.

A number of states in the northeast planned to get their ozone levels under control partly by putting in place limits stricter than the EPA’s on VOCs that could be emitted from paints and stains. Sherwin-Williams has been engaged in a vigorous campaign to keep these stricter limits from being put in place and enforced. The company asked Ohio Senator Voinovich to write a letter to the EPA asking that the stricter limits not be approved. They also filed challenges to the sci¬entific basis on which the states’ regulations were made with the White House Office of Management and Budget and the EPA itself. In addition, the company has filed suits across the northeast to prevent the stricter regulations from going into effect.

Fourth – Paying to exceed allowable pollution levels

Sherwin-Williams is paying for not reformulating their products to prevent ozone and smog. The New York Times reported that, “Sherwin-Williams paid more than $5 million in 2002 to avoid fully reducing its levels of volatile organic compounds to required limits.” Sherwin-Williams is choosing to pay for the privilege of polluting the air rather than reformulating its products.

Fifth – Polluting our communities

Sherwin-Williams has contributed to pollution at specific community sites, including several Superfund sites. In Emeryville, California the state has been pushing the company to clean up a site since 1997. In Portland, Oregon a relatively minor dispute with a state inspector progressed to where the company was vowing to fight tooth and nail before deciding it had been in the wrong after all.

Sherwin-Williams is a large and profitable company. It needs to be a leader in protecting the health of the public and the environment. ACORN is giving Sherwin-Williams the 2006 “Bad Neighbor of the Year” award for the company’s environmental abuses. In addition, ACORN has launched a nationwide campaign to force Sherwin-Williams to help clean up the problem of lead paint.

The full text of this abridged executive summary of the June 28, 2006 report by ACORN is available at http://www.SherwinWilliamsPoisonPaint.com

ACORN is calling on Sherwin-Williams to contribute significantly to making our communities lead safe by doing the following:

ACORN is calling on city and state officials to:

What Is ACORN?)

ACORN is the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, with over 200,000 member families organized into 800 neighborhood chapters in 108 cities across the country. Since 1970 ACORN has taken action and won victories on issues of concern to our members, including better housing for first-time homebuyers and tenants, living wages for low-wage workers, more investment in our communities from banks and governments, and better public schools.

Contact ACORN at http://www.acorn.org

[1 jan 07]

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