Painter’s Suit Ties Solvents to Cancer
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.