It might be surprising to learn that simply removing paint could be fatal, but the key ingredient in many paint-stripping products has felled dozens of people engaged in this run-of-the-mill task. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to largely ban paint strippers containing the chemical methylene chloride so they would no longer sit on store shelves, widely available for anyone to buy.
What’s happened since should be no shock to close observers of the Trump administration's pattern of regulatory rollbacks. The EPA, after hearing from both Americans in support of a ban and companies opposed to it, pushed back its timeline for finishing the rule to an unspecified date, saying it needed more time to weigh the issue.
Consumer advocates fear the proposed rule has been effectively shelved, even as people continue to die while using methylene chloride paint strippers on bathtubs and other items — including at least three last year.
“There literally are bodies stacking up,” said Erik Olson, who directs the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. If the EPA won’t act on a chemical that’s undisputedly killing people, he said, “what are they going to act on?”
The NRDC is among the advocacy groups that plan to intensify their efforts to get these products off shelves another way — by ratcheting up pressure on home-improvement retailers such as Lowe’s and the Home Depot to stop selling them. Lowe's said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity that it is working with suppliers on alternatives and is “committed” to nearly doubling the number of methylene chloride-free paint strippers it sells by the end of the year, to seven total.
A doctor who serves as a Maryland legislator, meanwhile, wants his state to institute the ban the EPA hasn’t finalized. And California regulators are working on a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to look for safer alternatives to methylene chloride in paint strippers. (Some such options already are on the market but don't sell well, manufacturers say, because they don't work as quickly.)
Even if these efforts bear fruit, they represent a patchwork approach that Congress seemed intent on avoiding when it amended the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. That legislation gave the EPA clear authority to ban chemicals presenting an “unreasonable risk” to health or the environment.
Often, chemical harms are hard to grasp because they’re not immediate. But methylene chloride, which research suggests carries risks of cancer and other long-term health problems, can also kill on the spot. It’s been linked to more than 50 deaths in the U.S. since 1980, a 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation found — among them a few consumers and a wide variety of workers on the job. Teenagers. A mother of four. A 62-year-old man. An Iraq War veteran.
Using the product in enclosed areas, where fumes build up, puts people at risk of asphyxiation because methylene chloride is an anesthetic at high doses — knocking victims out and stopping them from breathing. Because it turns into carbon monoxide in the body, it can also trigger heart attacks in smokers and people with certain health conditions.
“It’s too toxic to use indoors,” said Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco.
Over the decades, methylene chloride — also called dichloromethane — has struck down people removing paint or other coatings in bathrooms, tanks, basements, even in a church baptismal pool. The public appears mostly unaware of the danger. Clerks in hardware stores didn't seem to know, a California agency found in a 2013 survey. But experts linked the chemical to deaths as far back as the 1940s. Criticism that the EPA hadn’t done something began in the 1970s, in the agency’s early years.
The proposal was years in the making. It came over the sustained objections of paint-stripper manufacturers and their trade groups, which argued that job losses would follow. In 2016, after the EPA’s work on its proposed rule was well underway, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to strengthen the products’ warning labels — then argued last year that this obviated the need for sales restrictions on the “most efficient and cost-effective paint remover products.”
“We certainly recognize that some people have been harmed when using methylene chloride without the appropriate safeguards, and we are committed to being a part of the solution,” Faye Graul, executive director of the alliance, said at a recent legislative hearing in Maryland.
The group, speaking on behalf of methylene chloride manufacturers and users, also said in comments on EPA’s proposed rule that the agency failed “to take into account the documented greater flammability risk posed by alternative products.”