China Lead Paint Crisis Spreads to Commercial Sector

Problems with dangerous lead, found in contaminated toys and children's products from China, extend to the steel used in everything from condominiums to factories in the United States. The imported building materials pose a potential health hazard because they are coated with paint containing lead, which is rarely used on American steel.

The chief operating officer at one of the largest firms that makes money by inspecting imported building materials for lead content tells that his company has found dangerously high levels of lead paint in large shipments of commercial steel coming from at least two different Chinese factories.

Daniel Adley, COO of inspection firm KTA Tator, said that multiple shipments of steel, sent to two different American firms, were designed for use in structures such as condominiums and factories in America – and that some of the contaminated steel may have been installed.

"At least two customers had multiple projects involving multiple shipments of large quantities of steel that was fabricated in some of the Pacific Rim countries, including and specifically China, and it came into this country with very high lead content," Adley said.

This news indicates that retail manufacturers, including toymakers Mattel and Hasbro, are not the only companies struggling with Chinese factories looking to cut corners by producing unsafe leaded products. Commercial companies that do not have to publicly announce a recall because their goods are not sold commercially seem to be facing these issues, too.

Adley said that the hazardous steel would cost an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up. If untreated, it could pose a slew of safety hazards to construction workers, the environment and the general population, he said.

"The shipments caused tremendous problems for our customers," said Adley, whose company was contracted by the steel importing firms to test the material for lead paint.

In order to protect his customers' confidentiality, Adley would not identify which firms imported the steel, nor would he name the Chinese factories that made it.

"It doesn't surprise us that steel coated outside the United States, where these issues are not regulated, contains lead," said Michael Damiano, the director of product development for the Society for Protective Coatings, a nonprofit group that creates standards for coatings. KTA's Adley did confirm that one of the two firms spent a large amount of money, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, to remove the lead paint from the Chinese steel. However, Adley said he did not know if the second firm also cleaned up the steel before installing it, or whether it simply noted where it had installed the contaminated material.

In the United States there is no explicit ban on the use of lead paint in commercial steel, and Adley said it is very likely that some contaminated steel from China has found its way into America's infrastructure. Approximately 2.6 million tons of finished steel was imported from China in the first half of this year, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

So long as the leaded steel is undisturbed, it poses minimal health concerns. But if workers weld, drill or otherwise manipulate the steel during installation or in repairs years from now, the lead in the coating may be released, posing serious health risks. These negative health effects include damage to the central nervous system, delayed reaction time and information processing, as well as digestive problems and nausea, according to Hugh Evans, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University.

And the lead can also leak into the environment, harming wildlife and potentially the general population by seeping into lakes and drinking water, Evans said.

American firms virtually never permit lead paint on their products mostly because the necessary health precautions make working with steel that contains lead paint prohibitively expensive.

There is an explicit ban on lead paint designed for consumer use or in retail products such as toys, Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

Adley said that one of the importing firms had contaminated shipments from at least two different Chinese factories, and that leaded paint was also imported from factories outside China. He said there were at least three or four tainted shipments, each containing upwards of a dozen trucks carrying some leaded steel.

Adley said that before the shipments this year, in his 12 years working for KTA he cannot recall shipments of any substantial size containing such high amounts of lead.

The new presence of leaded steel may be rooted in changing global economics. In the past, American companies would order raw steel from China and paint it in the United States, nipping any lead paint issues in the bud. But today more products are being manufactured, painted and preassembled in China simply because it is cheaper.

The 2.6 tons of finished steel imported from China during the first half of 2007 represent 18 percent of all finished steel imports and an increase of 25 percent from the same period last year, according to an American Iron and Steel Institute report. Only Canada exports more steel to the United States, but that may soon change as well.

Whereas most of the consumer products like toys and toothpaste recalled this summer contained less than 2000 parts per million of lead – or about 0.002 percent lead – some samples of the Chinese steel contained up to 25 to 50 percent lead on the surface.

Lead paint was widely used in buildings in the United States through the 1980s and early 1990s, but has since been effectively banned because of the serious health hazards associated with it, both Adley and Damiano said.