In the Trenches: Paint, Lead and Mellorine

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

Just the other day, there was a notice in our local paper about the leaded paint still present and easily exposed in many of the homes in our town’s older neighborhoods. The concern is real because a very minuscule amount consumed by babies or small children can cause developmental problems with lifetime consequences.

Sharon pointed this out to me, and one more time reminded me of the wooden high chair I refinished and made look like new for our first-born son, Sloan. I had sanded it, primed it, and sprayed on a beautiful coat of sign enamel. But, this was back in the early ’80s, and up to that point, sign paints had changed little over the years… and they all contained lead.

Now, as far as I know, Sloan is fine, and his three handsome little boys are, too. But once more, I felt guilty for my good deed being done with bad paint. Well, it was actually good paint in many ways, but not good for children’s furniture, or anything having to do with kids.

I am glad that things are much different in the sign business these days, as our materials and products seem to be environmentally friendly. Since most substrates come prefinished, even I’m not exposed to much spray paint or solvents, and the paint we use has long since become unleaded just like the gasoline we burn in our cars.

And though I certainly relate to Sharon’s wondering if we had recklessly exposed our son to a toxic hazard in his little world, it has dawned on me lately that it was our generation that was constantly exposed to so many toxic things, not his. Why, it’s a wonder we made it through childhood without a myriad of side effects and health issues.

When we were growing up, virtually all the glossy surfaces on just about anything, from lawn furniture to lunch boxes, were painted with lead-based paint. That’s just how paint was made back then. But our exposure to paint was only the tip of the iceberg.

Houses were often shingled with asbestos shingles, covered with asbestos siding (painted with leaded paint), and our schools contained plenty of asbestos, too. The U.S. military was blowing nuclear holes in the ground out in Nevada, and the prevailing winds pretty much made Texas a logical place for that fall out to fall out on.

But some of our health hazards just seemed like fun at the time. I remember on more than one occasion running behind a city truck motoring along at a snail’s pace while spraying a beautiful white mist, an artificial London fog, so white we could almost disappear in it. The fog was pure DDT, sprayed to combat mosquitoes, not kids, so what could possibly go wrong?

And just thinking of the things we ate back then should cause some anxiety. Most of our snacks were so full of artificial coloring; it’s a wonder we didn’t pee in rainbow colors. One of our favorites was pure sugar but not very colorful… candy cigarettes. Now that treat made a lot of sense. That way we could be thinking of smoking even when we were in elementary school!

Some of the foods we ate were downright experimental, like “mellorine,” a clever mix of processed cottonseed oil and milk solids, stir frozen to look and feel like ice cream, smooth, cold and sweet. It could not be found in the four food groups… but it sure could be found in our icebox!

There’s plenty more I could mention, but I’m sure you get my point. And the point is things really have gotten better. Better for my kids, and certainly better for my grandkids, even in my sign shop. And somehow, at least to age 64, I have dodged any detrimental health effects that I know of, and my greatest risks looking back on things, especially after I went to work in the sign business, has been my own stupidity.

Well, there seems to have been plenty of that to go around back then, but maybe we’ve all learned a bit over the years. At least we don’t eat as much cottonseed oil, inhale DDT very often, or even paint signs with leaded paint.

Now we just have to worry about flatulent cows and serious things like that. Oh well, it’s always something.