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Painter’s Suit Ties Solvents to Cancer

Friday, May 9, 2014

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For three years, Walter Sarrat used a soaking mist of undiluted toluene to remove the workday’s protective coatings from his skin, clothing and equipment.

The spray made the industrial painter dizzy, he said, but it was the go-to cleaner provided by his now-defunct employer, Gencote Inc. of Jefferson Parish, LA. The company assured Sarrat that the solvent, also used to remove overspray, was safe.

Nearly 40 years later, Sarrat disagrees and, in a federal-court action, is suing the maker of the toluene spray over the Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia he has contracted.


Univar, a leading global chemical distributor, purchased ChemCentral Inc. in 2007. ChemCentral distributed the solvents that led to Walter Sarrat's lawsuit.

The litigation by Sarrat and his wife, Hilda, was filed May 2 against Univar U.S.A. Inc., in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Univar did not respond Thursday (May 8) to a request for comment.

Benzene Dangers

Univar is the successor corporation to New Orleans-based ChemCentral Inc., also known as Southern Solvents & Chemicals Corp., which solds barrels full of toluene to Sarratt's employer in the 1960s.

ChemCentral was founded in 1926. Univar, now the leading chemical distributor in the United States, bought ChemCentral in 2007 for $600 million.

At Gencote, the chemical was put into five-gallon cans attached to a sprayer. After a day of painting barges, silos and other structures with anti-corrosion industrial coatings, Sarrat sprayed himself, his equipment, and any overspray with the toluene provided, the suit says.

Benzene warning CLL

Benzene exposure is linked to Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (right) and other blood and bone-marrow disorders.

He followed the practice every workday for three years, the suit says, not knowing that the spray also contained "high concentrations" of benzene, a highly toxic carcinogen long linked to damage to the bone marrow, red blood cells and immune system.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers benzene so harmful that people who accidentally get it on their clothing and skin are advised to immediately strip off the clothes (cutting them off, rather than pulling them over the head) and dispose of them in a plasic bag, and to clean themselves thoroughly with soap and water.

Sarrat, on the other hand, had been literally been washing himself in benzene-laced solvent.

Hiding Information?

Sarrat's suit says that the barrels of solvent were marked "Toluene" and "Southern Solvents & Chemicals." They contained no other warnings or labels, and the supplier provided no warning information about the product, the suit says.

The suit alleges that the chemical and petroleum industries have known of benzene's dangers for more than 100 years—and that the "myriad of ill health effects," including cancer, were "widely known" by the end of 1948, but hidden from end users.


Unlike this modern barrel of toluene, the ones that Walter Sarrat saw in the 1960s contained no labeling or warning information, the lawsuit alleges.

In that year, the American Petroleum Institute published a toxicological review of benzene that recommended precautionary measures for workers exposed to the chemical, the suit says.

“In as much as the body develops no tolerance to benzene, and as there is a wide variation in individual susceptibility, it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is
zero,” the document said in part, according to the lawsuit.

The document recommended ventilation, respirators and other protective measures for workers.

Hiding Information?

The suit accuses the supplier of "negligently misrepresenting, concealing, suppressing, and omitting material information about the health effects of benzene and precautionary measures in regard thereto."

The litigation also takes aim at toluene, saying the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 1942 that the chemical was widely used in the lacquer industry and that the solvent usually contained benzene and xylene.


Walter Sarrat says he was told for three years to clean his skin, clothing, equipment and any overspray with direct application of undiluted toluene. He said he did not know the chemical also contained benzene.

The suit calls the product used by Sarrat "unreasonably dangerous per se" and "unreasonably dangerous" in construction, design and failure to warn.

It accuses the manufacturer of passive fraud in remaining silent about well-known risks and in failing to label the product in detail.

Sarratt has suffered from leukemia for years, but did not connect it to the long-ago chemical exposure until March of this year, the suit says.

The action does not specify a monetary penalty but seeks a jury trial.


Tagged categories: Health and safety; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; Marine Coatings; Painting Contractor; Solvent and chemical cleaning; Solvents

Comment from Steve Brunner, (5/9/2014, 12:13 PM)

This is an extremely precarious situation. It is a sad situation when any employee contracts a potentially deadly disease. Yet, in this situation I see the employer to be at fault in teaching, training and allowing employees to literally immerse themselves in solvent to clean off. Being in the chemical industry for a good number of years I am no naïve to fact that using solvents to clean off was and in some places still a common practice. A second issue is the employee possibly being reprimanded when questioning practices. No one will admit it happens but does to some extend. Then there is the employee not wishing to seem "weak" by not following the "accepted" cleaning process. If my math is correct this happened around the time OSHA was being implemented to protect individuals, as such todays PPE we take for granted may not have been as readily available. Also, MSDS and other warnings were in their infancy. Again, the onus falls on the employer in that he is to relay any pertinent information along to the employee. For me it is tough to go after a reputable supplier for an egregious error in safety by an employer. The unfortunate issue is the employer is no longer in existence.

Comment from peter gibson, (5/13/2014, 1:33 PM)

Some employers are uninformed about the hazard; and some dont care. Back in the day potential risk was not on the horizon. You are still dealing with the frailties of human nature in these cases.

Comment from tim hady, (5/13/2014, 6:20 PM)

It don’t take 3 years of daily exposure to get CLL. But 3 years will just about guarantee it.

Comment from William Cornelius, (5/14/2014, 9:39 AM)

@Steve Brunner. When I started in coatings we were expected to wash spills off our selves with xylene. When we washed used containers we were denigrated for using rubber gloves because of the cost. OSHA may have gotten a little nuts since, but this is why we have the agency today.

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