Not until Perry Gottesfeld pulled up to the front gates of Seigneurie in Cameroon did he realize the African country's leading paint manufacturer was owned by a U.S.-based corporation.
"A big sign read PPG," Gottesfeld, executive director of the nonprofit Occupational Knowledge International, recalled from his March 2011 visit to the factory. "We were shocked."
The reason for the surprise: His research team had just discovered that more than 40 percent of Seigneurie house paints on the market in Cameroon contained high levels of lead, with the neurotoxic heavy metal accounting for up to half the weight of some paints. House paint containing lead -- added as an inexpensive way to brighten color, speed drying and prevent corrosion -- was banned in the U.S. more than three decades ago.
"That is more or less the way we do things," said David Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University. "We end up exporting our poisons and try to make every last bit of profit we can."
The global spread of toxic lead paint follows an unfortunate pattern that covers everything from leaded gasoline to unsafe medications, according to Rosner and other public safety experts. Long after a product has been pulled from U.S. shelves, it still tends to appear in open markets elsewhere -- often in developing countries where few regulations protect public health.
Asbestos is another case in point. As the U.S. stopped most traditional uses of the microscopic mineral fibers due to their toxicity, companies continued to ship the substance elsewhere. In 2011, according to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. exported about $27 million worth of asbestos products.
"It's every sort of toxic chemical you can think of," said Evan Mascagni, a producer of an upcoming documentary that highlights the global sale of pesticides banned in the U.S. and the health dangers those chemicals pose to unsuspecting farmers, agricultural workers and children.
While filming "Toxic Profits," Mascagni said, he heard stories of Mexican children who would lie in fields as planes flew overhead spraying pesticides. "When it was so hot outside, this would be a way to cool off," he said. "And it was a fun game."
Mascagni also remembered finding "a lot of empty pesticide containers on farms that lacked any labels," let alone proper use instructions or health warnings.
Nearly 1.7 billion pounds of pesticides were exported from U.S. ports between 2001 and 2003, the film's trailer reports. Nearly 28 million pounds of those pesticides were products forbidden in the U.S.
"It's hard to get a chemical banned in the U.S.," said Mascagni. "So we know if something has been banned, it is extremely toxic."
CropLife International, an industry trade group, told The Huffington Post that exports of pesticides "manufactured in the U.S., but not registered in the U.S., are heavily regulated." That regulation includes notifying the importing country about the "registration situation in the U.S.," said Robert Hunter, a CropLife spokesman.
To date, no U.S. law stops such shipments, and many countries continue to welcome the chemicals across their borders.
President Jimmy Carter did attempt in January 1981 to rein in companies that export toxic pesticides and other products, according to a 1991 story in The Seattle Times. Four years prior to Carter's executive order, U.S. companies were found to have dumped millions of children's pajamas treated with a toxic flame retardant on developing countries after the retardant was banned in the U.S., the Times reported.
Just 33 days after Carter signed the order, President Ronald Reagan rescinded it. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tried and failed to pass similar legislation during the 1990s.
Then and now, much of the attention on the issue, according to Mascagni, is focused on the potential harm to American consumers: Food grown overseas, using toxic chemicals imported from the U.S., often returns to be sold in U.S. supermarkets.
"It's incredible to me that we've had to use this 'circle of poison' concept to get America's attention, instead of the idea that we're dumping dangerous pesticides on people all over the world with no precaution or supervision," said Mascagni.
Much like banned pesticides, lead's toxic legacy lives on in the U.S., as HuffPost reported earlier this month.
Meanwhile, developing countries are applying fresh coats of lead paint to schools, day care centers and homes, according to Gottesfeld's study, which will be published in the May issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.
"There is not a lot of awareness of this problem in most developing countries. Few have any regulations on lead content of paint," said Gottesfeld. "There are significant exposures, and the problem is getting worse. As we found out in this country, once you apply paint, it's 30 to 40 years before it starts deteriorating."
"It's a ticking time bomb," he added. "The idea is to try to nip it in the bud and prevent the same mistakes the U.S. made, as paint sales are growing rapidly in China, Asia and Africa."
When asked about the Seigneurie finding, PPG Industries spokesman Jeremy Neuhart told HuffPost that the company is reformulating its building and house paints to meet the U.S. limit of 90 parts per million of lead, even for products sold in countries, such as Cameroon, where no standard currently exists. He added that the company has offered to exchange previously sold paint that contains lead with new lead-free products.
PPG has not made a similar commitment for paints with automotive and other industrial uses, noted Gottesfeld, nor has the company agreed to remove its leaded products from store shelves. As of Gottesfeld's last visit in September 2012, he said, four out of 10 Seigneurie paints purchased from retail locations in Cameroon contained lead levels above the U.S. limit.
Gottesfeld also pointed out that in addition to the multinational companies that continue to make lead paint products in countries where it is legal, U.S. companies export large quantities of the lead pigment itself -- nearly 8 million kilograms of it in 2010, according to data from the U.S. International Trade Commission.
"That's more or less par for the course for the lead industry. They're using lead as long as they can get away with using lead," said Rosner, whose forthcoming book, Lead Wars, includes the story of the industry's long battle against lead bans in the U.S.
"The story continues," he said.
WATCH the "Toxic Profits" trailer below:
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