Cracking Eastern Europe’s lead paint syndicate MF

Ukrainian-made paint containing 100 or more times more lead than international standards permit is regularly exported to Europe and Central Asia.

I want to investigate claims that this trade in toxic paint is facilitated through corrupt connections between Ukrainian businessmen and police and government officials both at home and in Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Russia, and Georgia.

Ukraine is a haven for manufacturers of lead paint, despite reams of evidence that children especially can suffer neurological damage and other lasting health problems through exposure to lead-containing paint on walls or toys.

Although the EU bans lead in domestic paint, Ukraine and some other Eastern European countries do not place any restrictions on its manufacture.

But some countries that import Ukrainian lead paint do restrict its use, although permitting much higher levels than the EU or United States.

How is this practically unregulated trade allowed to happen?

I want to bring my years of experience as a multiple award-winning investigative reporter to bear on this question. Two years ago I collaborated with Moldovan journalists on a story with a similar plot, only in reverse. We showed that thousands of tons of acid tar – a sulfuric acid-containing waste product of the petroleum industry – entered Ukraine and the Moldovan secessionist region of Transnistria from Hungary in the early 2000s. No company or authority was ever held to account for this dubiously legal cross-border trade.

I have also investigated how modestly-paid Ukrainian public servants acquired swank luxury cars without paying a cent in excise or tax, and revealed how entire teams of customs officials worked in cahoots with smugglers.

Ukrainian lead-based paints are competitive on price in much of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Such paints are widely used in schools and homes – the very places where they pose the greatest danger to young children.

  • In the EU, lead is prohibited in most paint

  • Worldwide, permissible lead levels range from 90 parts per million (ppm) in the U.S. to 20,000 ppm in Cuba

  • In Armenia and other members of the Eurasian Economic Union, the permissible level is 5,000 ppm. Some Ukrainian-made paints contain 14,000–30,000 ppm

  • The UN Environment Program has found dangerously high levels of more than 10,000 ppm in paint sold in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia

Two Ukrainian makers of lead-based paints exported paint worth an average of about 50 million euros per year from 2013–2016. Their major markets are Moldova and Kazakhstan – accounting for over half of total exports. Lithuania, Armenia, and Georgia are also significant customers.

Using my sources in Ukrainian law enforcement, industry, and government agencies, I will identify which officials and government agencies authorize the export of paint to Moldova, Kazakhstan,  Russia, Georgia and Armenia.

I will also report expert findings on the analysis of paints made by Ukrainian producers.

I plan to interview actors at all levels of the export chain, from paint manufacturers, to Ukrainian customs and Environment Ministry officials, to law enforcement agencies in several countries.

My work will be underpinned by video and photo documentation and checked by legal experts.

I began work on this story a year ago. With the help of Press Start donors, I can expand its scope and identify those who facilitate the trade in lead paint across a swathe of Europe and Central Asia and those who benefit from it.

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