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Politics and Paint: More or Less Government in Coatings?


By Harold Hower

Most people today, it seems, want the government to reduce its expenditures; limit its role in business and finance; and cut taxes, as in the credo of the Tea Party Movement.

I’ve thought about these ideas in terms of the coatings industry, and wondered whether we would be better off with or without the level of government intrusion we’ve had for the last 20-30 years.

There seem to be three main ways that government affects business and technology—executive orders from the office of the President, enactment of laws, and regulatory rulemaking. Let’s briefly look at some of the government’s actions in each of the three areas.

By executive order from the President in about 1998, federal buildings were mandated to reduce their energy consumption dramatically within a short period. This order, in part, gave impetus to research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and the National Institute of Building Science on reflective roof coatings, air and vapor barriers, and other aspects of building science. Such work led to revisions to building codes and establishment of building-envelope councils, which spread technical developments about this research to the architectural community. Demand was created, especially for liquid- and sheet-applied air and vapor barriers and reflective roof coatings. The coatings industry has profited from this development, and the country has reduced its energy bills.

Laws affecting the coatings industry, enacted at the federal level, have included the Clean Air Act and its Amendments and the Toxic Substances Control Act. As a result of these and similar laws, coatings now have many fewer toxic elements and dramatically lower volatile organic components. In complying with these laws, the coatings industry has contributed substantially to better air quality, improved occupational health, and safer dwellings and public spaces.  The reduction in medical costs from these improvements must be very substantial. Of course, there has also been a big cost to industry for compliance.

Regulatory rulemaking that influences the coatings industry comes mostly from EPA and OSHA, to protect the environment and painters engaged in coating work. There are obvious benefits to the public when, for instance, blast abrasive contaminated with lead paint from a bridge is not allowed to be dumped into the river beneath the bridge, and when painters are not injured by coatings laced with neurotoxic solvents. But, again, compliance does not come cheap. Whereas a bridge may have been painted 30 years ago for a dollar a square foot, today the cost may be $10 a square foot or higher.

We’re safer and healthier today because of government influence on the coatings industry. And industry has in some ways profited from market stimulation arising from government actions. But also some companies fell by the wayside because of the high cost of compliance, and some states and municipalities cannot afford to maintain infrastructure with coatings. Have we come out ahead or behind?

What’s your opinion? We invite your opinion and comment in seeking to make Durability + Design a forum for discussion.


Harold Hower

Harold Hower, CEO and founder of Technology Publishing Company, likes to think about ways of improving conditions in the architectural coatings industry.



Tagged categories: Coatings Technology; Coatings technology; Regulations

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