A Buddhist chemist quietly plying his trade in B.C.’s Fraser Valley may be on the verge of curing one of humanity’s most poisonous practices — stripping paint.
Kham Thiphavong of Maple Ridge has developed a water-based paint remover he believes will address the world’s growing revulsion with lethal chemical strippers.
Thiphavong’s family of eco-friendly cleaning products blends his 35 years of experience in the paint industry with Buddhism’s 2,500 years of compassion for life forms. And WaterBased Solutions, Thiphavong’s tiny company, is trembling on the brink of a global market for green cleaning products estimated to reach $147 billion by 2017.
But you won’t hear Thiphavong, a quiet and gentle 69-year-old, boast about conquering the market for commercial cleaners.
He only speaks, with careful humility, about his desire to make the planet a better, greener home for all life forms.
“We do what we can to protect the environment and prevent an eco-catastrophe,” he says.
Humility and a green conscience make a lovely pair. But WaterBased Solutions has been around since 1998 and it’s hardly a household name. Its sales were only $400,000 last year.
16 YEARS OF TEAKING
The company has spent 16 years tweaking its products as it waited for the green cleaning market to catch up with it.
That may not have been a world-beating business strategy but it’s understandable, given that Thiphavong says he’s more passionate about chemistry than business.
“I would rather spend my time in the lab designing products than in the office,” he says.
The private company’s laid-back, word-of-mouth marketing hasn’t stopped it from racking up a list of formidable clients.
That’s not surprising: WaterBased’s stripper is strong enough to peel away decades of thick paint layered like an old sandwich on almost any material or object, yet delicate enough to remove graffiti without damaging an underlying surface.
It’s safe enough for do-it-yourself customers to apply to their bikes and tough enough to tackle decades-old paint clinging like mad to brick, wood and concrete.
The stripper is also sufficiently benign it can be washed down municipal storm drains after use, although any lead-based paint it removes must be contained and disposed of separately, says managing partner Steve Jenkins.
Jenkins says Boeing has applied the paint stripper to aircraft in Seattle, while Walt Disney Co. has used it to lift paint from rides in Disneyland. Other users range from National Defence Canada to VIA Rail’s Vancouver station, from Vancouver’s Sylvia Hotel to the Venezuelan government, which used it to strip helicopters.
Last year, Alberta’s Historic Resources Management Branch turned to the paint stripper to erase graffiti on the Okotoks glacial erratic known as “Big Rock.” The quartzite boulder south of Calgary, which bears an ancient pictograph and is sacred to the Blackfoot people, had been spray-painted and defaced with marking pen.
The paint stripper isn’t the only one of WaterBased’s six products to win converts. Masonry conservationist Shawn Thibault, owner of Ravenstone Masonry and Conservation, relied on other WaterBased products to preserve monuments and gravestones in Pioneer Square in downtown Victoria.
“They were an absolute ruin,” Thibault says of the 19th-century sandstone, marble and granite stones he was charged with repairing.
“Some of them were covered in mosses, mildews and biological matter. They were falling over and falling apart.”
Thibault used WaterBased’s Green Buster to remove the biologicals that had accumulated over the decades. He then applied other WaterBased products to bind together crumbling stone and to extract salt.
“I’ve used other products in the past for similar work and never had the success that I’ve had with (WaterBased’s) products,” Thibault says. “There is nothing that comes close to them as far as I’m concerned.”
APPEAL OF GREEN CLEANING PRODUCTS
The appeal of green cleaning products sold by WaterBased and its rivals may get a giant boost from world governments increasingly wary of the chemicals in traditional cleaners — and increasingly concerned with the risks of lead-based paint. The European unlon recently banned the use of paint strippers containing dichloromethane or methylene chloride.
That substance has been accused of being a health risk, and deaths have resulted from inhalation. Some reports link it to cancer.
WaterBased managing director and co-owner Barbara Dunfield says it’s only a matter of time until North America also cracks down on dichloromethane strippers. The market for paint strippers in the EU is estimated at more than $500 million a year. The U.S. market alone for paint stripping is estimated at $360 million a year.
The EU ban, and a recent court decision on lead paint in California, could mean WaterBased’s moment has finally arrived.
Last month, a California Superior Court judge ordered three paint companies to pay $1.1 billion US into a fund to clean up lead paint hazards in older homes in that state.
Dunfield is encouraged by the boost the court decision may give eco-friendly paint strippers, even though the companies have said they will appeal.
“We need to get out there and say, ‘We have a product that will fix this problem,’” she says.
Dunfield and Jenkins have put their money where their mouths are. Late last year, the two invested in the Thiphavong family company, becoming majority owners and renaming it WaterBased Solutions from Molecular-Tech Canada.
They’re launching a sales and marketing push that Jenkins thinks should at least double the seven-person operation’s sales this year.
THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE COMPANY
Thiphavong remains the intellectual and spiritual heart of the company. His devotion to the environment reflects his childhood in the rice paddies of northern Laos. Watching his father use only animal manure to fertilize the family’s paddies, he acquired an early appreciation for clean water — and its fragility.
When he was 14, he left the family farm to attend school in the capital of Vientiane. The escalating civil war between the Royalist government and Pathet Lao communists meant he never saw his parents again.
“I heard rumours of their deaths,” he says. “It was very hard. But what can you do?”
As a devout Buddhist in the Theravada school, Thiphavong had to accept the suffering surrounding their deaths. Refusing to look back, he went on to earn a science degree in France and a BSc in chemistry and math at the University of Montreal.
But as a chemist, Thiphavong felt no need to accept the presence of chemicals in paint-cleaning products. So he decided to create a safer alternative.
Not all his attempts were successful. But he learned with each effort.
“If a project fails it doesn’t matter as long as it brings more knowledge,” Thiphavong says.
His breakthrough came after he moved to B.C. from Winnipeg in 1997 and developed a low-odour, water-based stripper that could be applied as a gel and work more effectively at lower temperatures than eco-friendly competitors. While it still required goggles and gloves to be applied, it freed professionals such as Thibault from having to swaddle themselves like spacemen in protective gear.
Other water-based products flowed from Thiphavong’s brain, including a nail polish remover expected to hit market in a few months.
“It works like crazy,” Jenkins says.
The paint stripper is actually more of a lifter. It penetrates pinholes in paint, attacks the binding agents and dissolves the molecular bond between paint and the underlying surface.
When the bond is broken, paint lifts off the surface and can be removed as sheets with a squeegee or low-pressure washer, WaterBased says.
“It was superior to traditional strippers I’ve used in every way,” says reviewer Ryan King on automotive website classicsandperformance.com.
What’s the difference between a Buddhist chemist and a non-Buddhist chemist?
Not that much, Thiphavong says.
But this Buddhist chemist’s passion is to leave the world a cleaner place. For him, the elements of earth, wind, water and fire are as sacred as Okotoks is to the Blackfoot.
“Forests, soil and water. How do we avoid damaging them?”