In the absence of bans or voluntary substitutions, the first link in the chain that ends with customers exposed to methylene chloride is the manufacturers.
The one certain way they can get safety information into customers’ hands is to put it on the can’s warning label. But paint stripper warnings don’t clearly communicate the risk of death.
Take Jasco Premium Paint & Epoxy Remover, a widely available product that felled de la Peña’s co-worker in the paint-mixing tank in 2011. It’s made by Barr, whose other methylene chloride paint remover brands include Klean-Strip and Goof Off.
The Jasco can warns on the front that the contents are poisonous if swallowed, that they can irritate the eyes and skin, and that the vapor is “harmful.”
The instructions on the back of the can warn several times against using in poorly ventilated areas, including bathrooms, but don’t say why — other than the risk of chronic effects, such as cancer. The possibility of death is mentioned only in connection with swallowing and huffing.
To get a more explicit warning about the risks of using the product to strip paint, users have to track down the manufacturer’s safety data sheet online or find the “IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTICE,” dated June 2015, on the Jasco website.
The Jasco warnings are typical for the market, according to a Center review of labels on seven other brand lines. Cooley, the official with Jasco’s manufacturer, Barr, said by email that the CPSC had reviewed and approved the company’s labels.
“We strongly believe that the products are safe for their intended uses when the directions and warnings are followed,” he wrote. “Sometimes that means the product should not be used, such as when the intended setting is a room with poor ventilation.”
Donna Riley, an engineering professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who studies consumer product risks, co-wrote a 2000 paper about warning labels on methylene chloride strippers. They struck her the same way as most consumer-product warnings: “They’re terrible in so many ways. … They aren’t designed with the user in mind.”
What the warning labels are good for, lawyer Jason Rowe says, is limiting liability.
“The warning is very inadequate for a consumer, but it’s got enough room to drive a truck through in a legal case,” said Rowe, who represented the mother of the church maintenance worker who died in 2010. She settled, in part because of the poor track record for the few civil cases decided by judges or juries.
After manufacturers, the next link in the methylene-chloride chain is retail stores. Don’t count on life-saving advice here, either.
After two California workers died in paint-stripper accidents, the state Department of Public Health sent specialists posing as consumers to stores that carry the products. Methylene chloride strippers were more widely available than safer alternatives, they found, and none of the store clerks warned about the fatal implications of improper use.
Some, in fact, said the products posed no danger. The department’s 2013 report quoted a clerk insisting that a brand linked to one of the California fatalities wasn’t deadly: “If it were, it wouldn’t be sold on our shelves.”
After that, the state distributed safety posters to stores to put alongside paint strippers. The poster calls strippers with methylene chloride “extremely toxic,” lists necessary safety protections and recommends safer alternatives.
The Center, which did not see similar information in Baltimore-Washington stores, asked Lowe’s, the Home Depot and Ace Hardware whether they post safety warnings elsewhere in the country.
Ace said in a statement that, because it is a cooperative of independently owned stores, locations are not required to post warnings but “many may choose to do so as our retailers are committed to the safety and education of their customers.” Lowe’s would not answer the question, saying instead that it encourages customers to follow manufacturers’ usage recommendations. Home Depot did not respond.