A Toronto manufacturer of lead-based pigments is coming under fire from critics who say it is contributing to the global spread of potentially-harmful toxins after the company sought an exemption to new rules that essentially bar the sale of its products in Europe.

Dominion Colour Corporation, the largest manufacturer of lead-based paint pigments in the world, attracted the attention of critics earlier this year when the company attempted to get an exemption to continue selling the products in the European Union.

Dominion also exports the pigments from its operations in The Netherlands to countries around the world.  

"What Dominion and other paints companies have done is made profits at the expense of public health," said Bruce Lanphear, a public health expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. 

'There's no reason we should be using lead in anything other than car batteries and even then we should be looking for alternatives.' Bruce Lanphear, Epidemiologist

Lanphear is just one of a number of critics who say when Dominion's pigments are exported globally, they become part of an unregulated, uncontrolled system that exposes people to a known toxin.

The company's plant in Ajax, Ont., produces two pigments — bright red and yellow — that contain lead chromate and are used to colour industrial paints and plastics.

While lead in paint is allowed for industrial use in Canada, the company hit a snag when Europe added lead chromate to a list of "substances of very high concern" for human and environmental health, greatly restricting its use, to the point that Dominion wouldn't be able to sell its products there — or export them -—  as of May 2015. Dominion sells the pigments from its operations in The Netherlands.

Dominion was the only company to ask the European Chemicals Agency for permission to continue manufacturing with lead chromate, arguing there are no suitable alternatives.  After a lengthy review process, EHCA granted it -- for 12 years -- concluding the benefits outweigh the risks.

The final decision rests with EU member states and is expected next year.

That worries Perry Gottesfeld, who is head of San Francisco-based Occupational Knowledge International, which works to reduce workers' exposure to industrial pollutants in the developing world.  

"The situation with these pigments is that they get sold in bags and each bag can be used to make many small batches of lead paint.  Given that Dominion sells this product to dozens of distributors who in turn sell it to hundreds of smaller distributors and end users, there is no way to determine where or even how these hazardous chemicals are ultimately used," said Gottesfeld.

'High number of safeguards'

However, Dominion insists it has strict controls on the supply chain, and knows how the paint is being used.  "This is a very technical sale that's a minimum one year process.  Someone doesn't just pick up the phone and ask for 20 tons of it," Mark Vincent, Dominion's Executive Vice President told CBC News.

"There are a high number of safeguards to ensure they're not being used in sensitive applications," Vincent said."

The paints are used on road markings, construction equipment, and agricultural machinery, among other things.  The company says the lead-based formulation is necessary for durability and quality -- the bright red paint used on a construction fence or bright yellow of a traffic light, for example.

Calgary bikepath

Lead chromate paints are used to create bright yellow markings like these for improving safety on roads and bikepaths. (CBC)

"These pigments are used to make products where vibrant, durable colours are important in ensuring public safety." said Mike Klein, President & CEO of Dominion Colour Corporation.

Thousands of deaths per year: WHO

Lead is a known cause of intellectual disabilities in children, and is linked to high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates lead exposure leads to 143,000 deaths per year.  Almost all are in the developing world.

The WHO and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) want to eliminate lead in paint by 2020.

The UNEP says young children and pregnant mothers in the developing world "are still exposed to high levels of the dangerous toxin through unsafe paints." 

Canada signed on to the effort last year and so did the industry organization that represents Canadian paint manufacturers, including Dominion.

The company says it supports eliminating lead in decorative paint used on homes, or toys, but stops short of agreeing to take it out of its red and yellow pigments.

Canadian Opposition

Earlier this year, a consortium of environmental and health organizations wrote Dominion asking the company to withdraw its application in Europe.

SFU epidemiologist Bruce Lanphear was a signatory.

"You're talking about an isolated company that's selling a toxic product where there are safer alternatives," he said.

Canada has regulated the amount of lead in consumer paint to almost zero. However it's still allowed for industrial use.

In 2008, the federal government also did a risk analysis of Dominion's pigments under Canada's Chemicals Management Plan, and concluded that, while they do pose a risk to human health, it is "controlled" and the "risk is negligible."

Dominion's Mark Vincent told CBC News, "We've been through two assessments now, in Canada and EU, and both are very tough." 

But Lanphear believes the pigments should not be for sale in Canada, either.

"There's no reason we should be using lead in anything other than car batteries and even then we should be looking for alternatives."