Risky paint stripper will continue to kill while EPA delays

Methylene chloride, an ingredient used in paint strippers, has been responsible for a tragic, recurring pattern of deaths year after year. Predicting the future is never easy—but in the case of methylene chloride, it is all too clear that this deadly chemical will kill again, unless action is taken to finally remove it from store shelves.

It almost happened in January 2017, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule to prohibit methylene chloride in consumer and most commercial paint stripping uses. But close to a year later, EPA still has not finalized the ban—and according to an investigation by the New York Times, this is because chemical industry insiders appointed to top EPA positions are pushing to delay, weaken or eliminate the ban. In response to a recent EPA request for more information, scientists and health professionals wrote to say that the science is clear: methylene chloride is harmful and restrictions are needed to protect consumers and workers.

While EPA lags on the ban, people remain at risk. In April 2017, 21 year old Kevin Hartley succumbed to the toxic fumes while refinishing a bathtub for his family’s business.

Methylene chloride is dangerous because the fumes build up when used in poorly ventilated spaces and can incapacitate the user quickly – the vapors are heavier than air and accumulate in spaces like bathtubs. Exposures cause people to become dizzy, confused and pass out; breathing slows down. This can be lethal in very a short amount of time. Further, methylene chloride is a known cancer-causing chemical linked to brain cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. EPA estimates that more than 230,000 paint and coating removal workers are exposed to methylene chloride every year.

Paint strippers containing methylene chloride are easily purchased at your local hardware store; yet the equipment needed to protect yourself is not so readily accessible nor is it explained on product labels. Recommended attire can cost thousands of dollars and includes a respirator with fresh air supplied by a pump (supplied-air respirator) and specialty gloves made of a material resistant to methylene chloride, such as ethylene-vinyl alcohol/ polyethylene (EVOH/ PE) laminate or polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) gloves. The wrong kind of respirator will not protect the user— several deaths, including the most recent one, occurred while users wore cartridge respirators that don’t sufficiently block methylene chloride.

Recognizing the dangers of methylene chloride, the European Union prohibited it starting in 2010. Consumers and businesses easily transitioned to alternatives that are safer and effective, like benzyl alcohol, as shown in this video from the California Department of Public Health.

Featured in the video is Jason, a painter for 24 years, who had a near-fatal experience with methylene chloride and sums it up the best: “Unfortunately the injury doesn’t just stop with the individual victim- it encompasses your family, your loved ones. I think it’s imperative that every painter understands that methylene chloride’s not a chemical to be involved with paint stripping. There’s so many safer products out there to be used.”

We couldn’t agree more. EPA should finalize its ban before another life is needlessly lost to methylene chloride.

About the Author

Veena Singla, PhD is a Senior Scientist in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at Natural Resources Defense Council. Prior to that, she was the Associate Director of Science & Policy at PRHE.