Sanitation officials of the Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer safety agency, manipulate the results of lab testings of paint and varnish products of the Greek company called H.B. Body S.A. Due to their actions, the consumers suffer from poor-quality goods, containing excessive amounts of harmful substances. The police have already opened a criminal investigation into smuggling poisonous Greek paint.
Poisonous or safe?
Car paints, produced by Greek company H.B. Body S.A., were detained by the customs officers in St Petersburg in the summer of 2010, the Russian Mafia reported. The air samples were collected in the containers and a lab tested it. The results were shocking: the limit of formaldehyde in the air was 571 times higher than it is allowed, ethyl benzene - more than 25,000 times, ethenil benzene - 33 times, trimethyl benzene - 19 times.
The containers were packed with tins of varnish, paint and other automotive chemicals. These items are now on the shelves of the Russian stores.
Despite the obvious danger, containers with hazardous goods passed the customs in the end, and have been on sale in Russia’s outlets and car repair centers. However, the scandal reached Russian authorities and they were ready to take measures. The common sense seems to have finally prevailed. It was time either to make Greek manufactures produce safe stuff, or to drive them out of Russian market, or at least from St Petersburg, where the violations of sanitary regulation were found.
Far from it, the officials of the Russia’s public health authority, Rospotrebnadzor, did what was impossible even for our corrupt country. They rewrote the safety control assessment, using the data collected from the very laboratory tests, which showed that the goods were dangerous. The assessment paved the way for dangerous paints to be available in Russian shops.
How did this happen?
Document: The goods fully comply with existing standards
The samples of H.B. Body S.A. products, imported in Russia, were collected for laboratory tests on 1 February 2011. The tests showed that the items contained a considerable amount of substances, such as methyl alcohol and benzene. According to the Russian law, paint should not contain these substances.
Despite the fact, an expert of St Petersburg Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology - the sub-unit of the Rospotrebnadzor - Gerasimova gave an approval for the goods. In an official paper she said that the level of dangerous substances in the goods “complied with the RF Unified Sanitary Standards”. Aleksandr Meltser, a high rank official in the Rospotrebnadzor, was more cautious. He refused to give a state registration to the products of H.B. Body S.A. and did not sign the documents, certifying the safety of the paint. In a letter, addressed to Mikhail Tomashev, head of Paros LLC - a part of APEKS Group, that imports the products of H.B. Body S.A. in Russia, Meltser said, that in the products there were “excessive amounts of volatile organic chemicals, such as methyl alcohol and benzene, the presence of which the manufacturer did not state”.
It should seem that having protected consumers from the hazardous goods, the Rospotrebnadzor had effectively fulfilled its duties. But the story is not that simple, and sanitation officers came up with an ingenious way to avoid regulations. After Meltser’s letter, in which he refused to register the poisonous paint, his subordinates took air samples from the containers for one more time. The results of a laboratory test led them to completely different conclusions. In a new redaction of the safety control assessment they forgot to mention presence of methyl alcohol and benzene in the samples of the paint.
Noticeably, the first, reliable safety control assessment refers to the results of the laboratory tests of the samples, taken by the sanitation officers and Tomashev, the director of Paros. On the contrary, the second assessment, which does not mention harmful substances, refers to the laboratory tests of the samples, taken by Tomashev alone. It is quite imaginable, that Tomashev who is interested in the import of the paint found out the way to dispose of two harmful volatile chemicals. In Tomashev’s case, longing for money triggered advance in chemistry.
New redaction of the safety control assessment enabled officials of the Rospotrebnadzor to register the products of H.B. Body S.A. in April-May 2011. The products “complied with the RF Unified Sanitary Standards” and Paros got official state permission to sell it.
Paros, which imports the Greek paint, used the illogical actions of the state officials to turn the situation to its profit. They sued St Petersburg customs for 5 million roubles ($160,000). The company received this money as a penalty, paid by the state for detaining the cargo of products, which the Rospotrebnadzor classified as safe.
According to unnamed sources, Paros submitted a number of complaints to the authorities, claiming that the customs officers collected the samples of the Greek paint not for laboratory testing of dangerous stuff, but in order “cover up its failure to act”.
The danger of business competition
The cynicism of the state officials involved in the affair revealed when Aleksandr Maltsev wrote a second letter about the production of H.B. Body S.A. - a month after the first letter. This time the letter was addressed to Telnov, head of Lesnoi Port sub-unit of St Petersburg customs. It is obvious from text of the letter, that a customs officer Telnov was uncertain whether the cargo was safe and did not want to let it through.
“We have already informed you that <…> according to the proceedings, the samples should be taken for laboratory tests. However, I see no facts in your request that could give reasons for the paint and varnish of H.B. Body S.A. to be tested,” according to Maltev's letter.
At the same time Igor Rakitin, head of the directorate of the Rospotrebnadzor for St Petersburg, sent the letter with the very similar wording and content to his superior, deputy head of the Rospotrebnadzor Irina Bragina. Rakitin claimed that the products of H.B. Body S.A. had been properly tested and there were no reasons to forbid it in Russia. Rakitin did not mention that the tests detected methyl alcohol and benzene in the paint. He also said that allegations that the paint and varnish was dangerous were “an attempt to use the Rospotrebnadzor in the business competition”.
Apparently Igor Rakitin was absolutely comfortable with the memorandum he received from a transport prosecutor, head of customs control department Galushko, in which Galushko drew Rakitin's attention to the differences between the safety control assessments, made after the products of H.B. Body S.A. had been tested.
A prosecutor was amazed by the inconsistency of the conclusions made by different sub-units of the Rospotrebnadzor.
“According to the experts of St Petersburg Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology certain samples of the products <…> does not comply with the RF Unified Sanitary Standards. However, according to the safety control assessment of the Rospotrebnadzor, which <…> Paros LLC presented together with the customs bill of entry, the production complies with the current sanitary regulations,” according to the letter of a prosecutor.
Igor Rakitin could not be reached for comments. However, judging by mysterious transformations the safety control assessment of the products of H.B. Body S.A. have undergone, we may conclude that the officials would not find anything dangerous in these products even if they entirely consisted of hazardous substances.
There is another fact that should be taken into consideration. Paros has recently received an official state registration for the Greek goods in the directorate of Rospotrebnadzor for the Kaluga region. It looks suspicious, because Paros imports the paint only through St Petersburg. After all troubles the company has with safety control in St Petersburg, Paros might have found it easier to fix the problems with the sanitary officials from Kaluga.
Luckily, the outcome of this story no longer depends on the Rospotrebnadzor. The police have recently opened criminal investigation into smuggling the products of H.B. Body S.A. From now on, the wording of Rakitin's letters, as well as the discrepant conclusions of sanitary officials are a part of the criminal investigation. But will the police discover the truth? Judge Trifonova of St Petersburg's Primorsky Court has found that the searches in the warehouses of Apeks LLC were illegitimate. During the searches the police found evidence that the import of the Greek paint and varnish had involved serious violations of customs regulations.
In a nutshell, the question is: isn't it sensible for a reputable Greek firm to make its products comply with Russian standards, rather than spend enormous amounts of money to push the dangerous goods?