Blog: Toxic Paint for Children

On 1 August this year the Ministry of Sports and Youth signed a public procurement contract for the construction works to reconstruct the gym and sanitary facilities at the”Štampar Makarije“ Primary School in Podgorica. The contractor that won the works contract worth EUR 28,855. 95 was ”ART Gradnja“, a company from Bar.

While the works were ongoing, a concerned parent of one of the students attending the school in question, an engineer qualified for supervision of construction works, became to suspect that the contractor was not using appropriate paint on the walls of the gym locker room. On 1 October, that parent alerted the competent ministries and the school that the use of the materials being used to refurbish the walls of the school gym locker room (enamel varnish and oil-based paint for wooden surfaces) was not in conformity with the applicable regulations banning and restricting the use, marketing and production of the chemicals which posed unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.

In simple terms, the paint and varnish intended for the exterior were being used for the interior of the given facility and therefore potentially presented a health risk.

The parent asked for immediate suspension of the works, followed by mechanical removal of the coats already applied. At the time when the locker rooms were in use, the paint odour was almost unbearable and some children even experienced health problems, such as nausea, stomach pains and dizziness. The locker rooms were subsequently closed; in the report dated 15 October, the inspection noted that the contractor had scraped off the unsuitable coat and applied “suitable paint”.

That would have been the end of it, had the same parent not visited the facilities, felt the strong odour of oil-based paint, scratched the surface of the walls and found the same unsuitable and illicit paint beneath.

Following up on the repeated report, the sanitary inspection carried out several site visits during the first half of November and drafted several reports. One of the reports confirmed that the contractor had not complied with the inspection’s previous instructions. The locker rooms have remained closed for two months now.

It seems that the removal of the harmful paint started in mid-November; however, no public and credible information has been made available. None of the authorities, namely the Ministry of Sports and Youth, Ministry of Education, Primary School and Administration for Inspection Affairs provided public information about the event over the course of 60 days.

Still, all the developments corroborated the suspicions raised by the concerned parent whom we can essentially consider the whistle-blower in this case, in the best possible sense of the term.

Instead of expressions of gratitude to the concerned parent and clear notices that the locker rooms were closed in the interest of the children and due to a health risk, the comment circulating the school corridors was along the lines that ”some parents are causing trouble, so poor kids cannot use the locker rooms.”

It is important to stress that this case points to something that may be of systemic importance.  It seems that reconstruction of public buildings does not require mandatory supervision. That leaves room for this or a similar type of paint to be used elsewhere, or for harmful materials to be used in schools, hospitals or other facilities important for human life and health. It is possible that, when such other facilities were undergoing similar reconstruction, there was noone there at the time to detect breach of rules and health risks. Thus, this is left depending entirely on the conscience and professionalism of the contractors. One of the contractors whom I trust told me: “If I wanted to install radioactive material in the school I was hired to help reconstruct, I could have done it, as there was no oversight”.

The contractors must know that the Criminal Code provides that “a person responsible for  …execution of works who, in the course of execution, fails to comply with the regulations concerning spatial planning and construction or with the commonly accepted technical rules, thus causing danger to the human lives or bodies … shall be punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to five years, and if the offence was committed  out of negligence, the perpetrator shall be punishable by a fine or by a prison term of up to three years.” This applies, naturally, provided that the case is detected, the Administration for Inspection Affairs files a criminal complaint, and the prosecution takes it up.

Ultimately, it is worrying that this story that I tried to share with several media on several occasions and for several days did not capture practically any attention.  No media reported on this over one-and-a half months. It remains to be seen whether they will investigate the systemic proportions and challenges that the case points to. The case reminds us that we have to trust our own eyes and common sense rather than the institutions, that we must not scare our children with whistle-blowers or with people who point to possible problems, to whom we should instead somehow show our gratitude. On the other hand, we have to ask school management to act as ambassadors of the children rather than advocates for the ministers and ministries, and to consider concerned parents as their allies rather than “a threat”.

Stevo Muk
President of the Managing Board

Blog was originally published in daily newspaper ”Vijesti” and on the ”Vijesti” portal.

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