EPA wants to restrict sometimes-deadly paint stripper chemical

Solvent highlighted in Center investigation can kill quickly by asphyxiating victims

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Many of the paint strippers available on hardware store shelves contain methylene chloride, which can kill as its fumes build up. The EPA wants to restrict the chemical's use in such products.

Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to largely ban the use of a chemical in paint strippers that has killed dozens of people, asphyxiating some and triggering heart attacks in others.

The agency announced the proposed rule today, a move that followed pleas from public-health officials to do something about methylene chloride, the chemical in many of the paint removers on home improvement store shelves. Until last year, the cans didn’t include warnings about the risk of death from use in enclosed spaces, which is where people have typically died amid its fumes — in bathrooms, basements, tanks and even a squash court.

A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation uncovered more than 50 accidental exposure deaths linked to the chemical since 1980 in the U.S. — a likely undercount, given its ability to bring on a heart attack — and showed that federal agencies had opportunities to act decades ago but did not. Deaths blamed on methylene chloride have been documented since at least the 1940s, and in 1976 two academics wrote a piece in which they detailed a consumer death and criticized the lack of federal action.

The EPA said it determined that methylene chloride in paint strippers poses “unreasonable risks” to workers and consumers, not only because it can kill rapidly as its fumes build up but also because it increases the odds of developing cancer and can harm organs such as the lungs and kidneys. The only exceptions the agency proposed to its prohibition are for certain national security uses, which it wants to exempt for 10 years, and for furniture stripping, because the agency said it needs more time to determine how best to regulate the use of the chemical in that industry.

The EPA would require paint strippers with methylene chloride be distributed in 55-gallon drums to make sure they don’t end up on shelves in cans that consumers and businesses might unwittingly buy. About 1.3 million consumers use these products every year, in addition to roughly 30,000 people at work, the agency estimates.

“There are many cases of people who have become ill or even died as a result of exposure to methylene chloride-containing paint removers,” the EPA said in its announcement of the proposal. “Today’s action, when finalized, will save lives and protect people from other serious health risks.”

The proposal — opposed by businesses that make and use the solvent — comes eight years after the European Union approved a ban on sales of methylene chloride paint strippers to consumers and companies, with the exception of businesses using it in industrial sites with protective equipment and other cautionary measures. The chemical is also known as dichloromethane.

The would-be rule is the third the EPA has proposed since December that would restrict chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, reformed last year by Congress to give EPA the power to more effectively protect Americans from dangerous exposures at work and at home.

“For the first time in a generation, we are able to restrict chemicals already in commerce that pose risks to public health and the environment,” Jim Jones, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a statement last month.

But for the proposals to become rules, they will need the support of the incoming, regulation-adverse Trump administration. The president-elect has said that for every new rule his agencies enact, he wants to eliminate two. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, tapped as a Trump adviser, said his role will be “rallying against this overregulation that we have.”

Trade groups and businesses, meanwhile, tried to kill the paint-stripper proposal before it could be unveiled for public comment. Meeting with the White House regulatory-review arm that is the gatekeeper for rules, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance argued in December that the EPA action overstates the risks — though the group agrees that the chemical can be deadly in enclosed areas — and would leave people without a good paint-stripping alternative, according to the group’s presentation. As the EPA was working to finish its proposal last year, the trade group petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require stronger warnings on cans, then told the White House’s Office of Management and Budget that the EPA shouldn’t be “usurping” the CPSC’s authority.

W.M. Barr & Co., an employee-owned company that makes several methylene chloride paint stripper brands, including ones linked to worker deaths in recent years, said in its presentation to the Office of Management and Budget that the solvent “offers a truly unique set of benefits and can be safely used as millions of uses each year shows.” In an earlier interview with the Center, the company’s vice president of risk management pointed out that methylene chloride — unlike alternative chemicals for stripping — is nonflammable.

But the solvent is often paired with other, flammable chemicals in paint strippers, the EPA noted in its proposal. And chemical-safety advocates contend that there are safer, effective alternatives. Benzyl alcohol, which some state agencies have recommended, is less toxic and poses what the National Fire Protection Association describes as a “fairly insignificant” fire hazard. The Institute for Research and Technical Assistance, which tests safer substitutes for popular solvents, said it found benzyl alcohol to be a reasonably good replacement for furniture stripping — an industry exempted in the proposed rule — because it loosens the same coatings for roughly the same cost overall.

The EPA said methylene chloride does cause unreasonable risks in furniture stripping and wrote in its proposal that it intends to propose regulation for that use later, “after seeking additional information to further characterize the impacts of potential regulatory action.” It wants to enact both rules at the same time.

Furniture strippers who died from exposure to the chemical include 18-year-old Johnathan Welch. In 1999, the week before he would have started college, he was stripping paint over a tank in a business near Chattanooga, Tennessee, when co-workers left the room to eat lunch. When they returned 35 minutes later, he was collapsed over the tank, a burned, swelling arm in the liquid. Doctors tried in vain to revive him.

His mother, Rita Welch, said neither she nor her son had any idea the job he started at age 16 — after school at first, then full time — was putting him in contact with something that could kill him. “In his second year, he started having some dizzy spells and having problems with his sinuses, but I didn’t link it to the chemicals,” she said in 2015 interview, choked up with regrets over the still-keen loss.

The deaths in recent years have typically involved bathtub refinishing, with workers leaning over tubs to remove the finish, not realizing that that the fumes were building up to dangerous levels. The solvents industry agrees that methylene chloride is unsafe for bathtub work but wants warnings on labels rather than a ban.

Because methylene chloride is an anesthetic, it can knock victims out and shut down their ability to breathe. Gary de la Peña, who survived a near-death experience with the chemical at a California paint company five years ago, was overcome seconds after he rushed into a nine-foot-deep tank to rescue a collapsed co-worker who’d been using paint stripper inside it. His co-worker died. De la Peña was hospitalized for four days and told the Center in 2015 that his health had never been the same.

Methylene chloride transforms in the body to carbon monoxide, giving it another way to kill — by triggering a heart attack from lack of oxygen. And while methylene chloride isn’t flammable, an open flame can convert it to phosgene, the poisonous gas that killed tens of thousands in World War I.

Some paint-stripping alternatives carry their own health risks. Studies have linked N-methylpyrrolidone, or NMP, to miscarriages and other effects on unborn children, and EPA’s paint-stripper proposal covers that chemical as well. But the agency offered two possibilities it asked for comment on: Whether to ban NMP outright in paint strippers, with a temporary exemption for national-security uses, or to require more dilution of the chemical in paint strippers along with better warnings on labels and more worker protections.

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