Johnathan Welch was 18 and working through lunch when the fumes killed him, stealing oxygen from his brain, stopping his heart.
The chemical linked to his death in 1999 wasn’t a newly discovered hazard, nor was it hard to acquire. Methylene chloride, which triggered similar deaths dating as far back as the 1940s, could be bought barely diluted in products on retail shelves.
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It still can. And it’s still killing people.
The solvent is common in paint strippers, widely available products with labels that warn of cancer risks but do not make clear the possibility of rapid death. In areas where the fumes can concentrate, workers and consumers risk asphyxiation or a heart attack while taking care of seemingly routine tasks.
That hazard prompted the European Union to pull methylene chloride paint strippers from general use in 2011. For reasons that aren’t clear, regulatory agencies in the United States have not followed suit – or even required better warnings – despite decades of evidence about the dangers, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found.
A Center analysis identified at least 56 accidental exposure deaths linked to methylene chloride since 1980 in the US Thirty-one occurred before Johnathan Welch died, 24 after. The most recent was in July. Many involved paint strippers; in other cases victims used the chemical for tasks such as cleaning and gluing carpet, according to death investigations and autopsy reports the Center obtained through Freedom of Information Act and state open records requests.
Teenagers on the job, a mother of four, workers nearing retirement, an 80-year-old man – the toxic vapors took them all. A Colorado resident one year older than Welch was killed his first day at a furniture-stripping shop. Three South Carolina workers were felled in a single incident in 1986. Church maintenance employee Steve Duarte, 24, survived the Iraq War only to be killed in 2010 while stripping a baptismal pool in California.
“People have died, it poses this cancer threat … and everybody knows it’s a bad chemical, and yet nobody does anything,” said Katy Wolf, who recommends safer alternatives to toxic chemicals as director of the nonprofit Institute for Research and Technical Assistance in California. “It’s appalling and irresponsible.”
Two Medical College of Wisconsin researchers writing in The Journal of the American Medical Association criticized the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency for remaining “mute” on methylene chloride’s ability to trigger a heart attack. Year of publication: 1976.
The EPA says it does intend to take action. It is working on a rule – expected to be proposed early next year – that could stiffen warning labels on paint strippers containing the chemical, add certain restrictions or ban the products. But any regulation would come more than 30 years after the agency first considered such possibilities for methylene chloride.
The industry is lobbying against a rule, saying the chemical already is well-regulated and remains the most effective way to remove paint.
Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade group that includes methylene chloride manufacturers, said the way to stop the string of deaths is simple: “Proper use of the product.” Labels on the cans warn against using in areas that aren’t well ventilated.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for its part, denied a 1985 petition to ban the chemical in household products, when the issue was cancer, requiring instead a carcinogen warning that appears on cans in fine print. And CPSC staff shrugged off requests by California and Washington state officials in 2012 to consider stiffer regulation in response to the recurring deaths, later contending that the problem is an occupational one – even though consumers have died, too.
“To provide information to the public concerning this matter, CPSC has produced a paint stripper pamphlet,” an agency toxicologist wrote to the state officials in letters obtained by the Center.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration tightened its rules for on-the-job exposures to methylene chloride in 1997. But OSHA standards don’t cover consumers or the self-employed, and many of the recent fatalities happened at sites that are virtually invisible to the agency until there’s a death – inside residential bathrooms where lone workers strip tubs of old, chipped finishes.
Methylene chloride offers a case study in how products that pose major risks remain on store shelves. Stuart M. Statler, who helped write the Consumer Product Safety Act and served as a Republican commissioner on the CPSC from 1979 to 1986, said too often companies don’t prioritize safety, seeing it as a needless cost. And agencies are unlikely to force the point with bans. He doesn’t see that changing.
“The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of deregulation,” said Statler, now a product safety and regulatory consultant.
“Too Hazardous” Outside Controlled Settings
Methylene chloride, also called dichloromethane, is briskly efficient in all that it does. It softens old paint in minutes, allowing the coating to be scraped off. But if its fumes build up in an enclosed space, it can kill in minutes, too.
The California Department of Public Health, in its appeal to the CPSC, said the continuing deaths suggest methylene chloride is “too hazardous to be used outside of engineered industrial environments” – exactly what the European Union concluded about the chemical in paint strippers. While these products can be bought at home-improvement and general retail stores across the US, the specialty respirators and polyvinyl-alcohol gloves needed to handle them safely cannot, the Department of Public Health says.
Even workers wearing respiratory protection have succumbed. Levi Weppler, 30, who left a widow pregnant with their first child, was among those found dead with a respirator on, slumped over the Ohio bathtub he was refinishing in 2011. The cartridge-style device he used to filter the air wasn’t enough: Only a full-face respirator with a separate air supply, or exhaust ventilation to remove the fumes, is sufficient, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say.
By 1985, US agencies considered methylene chloride a probable human carcinogen – the Food and Drug Administration banned it in hairspray as a result. But the rapid-death problem was identified even earlier. In 1976, NIOSH noted that reports of such fatalities dated to 1947, when four men using the chemical for hops extraction were “overcome” and one of them died.
Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, chief of Michigan State University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, helped identify the more recent trend of bathtub fatalities from methylene chloride in a 2012 paper that has galvanized efforts by public-health officials.
They fear the fume risk isn’t widely known.
“It’s not surprising to the scientists who have studied methylene chloride in paint strippers when used in small spaces, but I think it’s surprising to the worker and consumer who can purchase the product off the shelf,” said Dr. Robert Harrison, chief of the California Department of Public Health’s occupational health surveillance program.
Methylene chloride exposure triggers regular calls to the nation’s poison control centers. They handled more than 2,700 such cases in the five years ending in 2013, the most recent data.
The number involving inhalation wasn’t recorded, but almost all the exposures were accidental. Hundreds involved children. And about 950 of the exposed people went to the hospital or sought other medical treatment, according to a Center analysis of American Association of Poison Control Centers reports.
The death toll compiled by the Center, meanwhile, almost certainly is an undercount. Poison control centers don’t hear about all incidents. OSHA tracks workplace fatalities, but not cases involving the self-employed or consumers. And Rosenman is sure the true cause of death for some methylene chloride victims is missed, given the chemical’s ability to trigger a heart attack.
Paint-stripping powerhouse W.M. Barr & Co., an employee-owned company in Tennessee that makes several methylene chloride brands, including ones linked to six worker deaths since 2006, sees the safety issue differently.
Barr’s founder helped the Navy develop the product during World War II to avoid fire hazards after a deadly incident on a ship involving a flammable paint stripper, according to Barr’s vice president of risk management, Mike Cooley. Methylene chloride is nonflammable. Several million cans of paint stripper containing the chemical are sold in the US each year, Cooley wrote in an email to the Center.
“One cannot but help conclude that for the vast, vast majority of consumers, the products were and continue to be safe,” he wrote. “Like many products, there are hazards related to the use of [methylene chloride] paint removers. However when used in the proper setting and as directed, they are not only effective but safe.”
Setting aside longer-term health concerns, such as cancer, the danger posed by methylene chloride is its one-two punch when fumes accumulate. Because it turns into carbon monoxide in the body, it can starve the heart of oxygen and prompt an attack. The chemical also acts as an anesthetic at high doses: Its victims slump over, no longer breathing, because the respiratory centers of their brains switch off.
An open flame, meanwhile, can transform methylene chloride to phosgene. That’s the poisonous gas used to deadly effect during World War I, responsible for more fatalities than chlorine and mustard gas combined. (Whether methylene chloride became phosgene in any of the deaths the Center tracked isn’t clear; full records were not available in all cases.)
The 1986 triple-fatality shows how swiftly death can come.
Several contracting firms were working on projects at a dam pumping station in Laurens, South Carolina. One had employees applying paint stripper to an underground area, described by OSHA in records as a basement and a pumping pit. Those workers managed to evacuate after the fumes built up, but when one man went back in, he was overcome so quickly he couldn’t get out.
He died. The emergency medical responder who tried to rescue him had to be hospitalized. Two of another contractor’s employees went through the same exercise, one entering the area to turn on the sump pump and passing out, the other felled while checking on him, according to OSHA records. The first man survived; the would-be rescuer did not.
To top it off, an electrician working aboveground “heard an unusual noise,” according to OSHA, and died in the basement when he went to see what it was.
Four years ago at a California paint company, Gary de la Peña discovered a co-worker lying unconscious in a nine-foot-deep paint-mixing tank. The man had been cleaning it with paint stripper and collapsed. De la Peña rushed in, pulled off his colleague’s useless respirator and put him over one shoulder to carry him out. That’s all he remembers. Already – in just a matter of seconds – the fumes had overcome him, too.
The man he was trying to save died. De la Peña, now 49 and living in Mexico City, still doesn’t know how he survived. He was in the tank for at least 45 minutes, green foam flowing from his mouth when he was finally pulled out. He had to be resuscitated and was hospitalized for four days, according to a state investigation.
He wasn’t able to finish his medical treatments before his immigration status forced him back to Mexico. His health has never been the same.
“I guess it attacked my nervous system,” said de la Peña, who knew nothing about methylene chloride until after his brush with it. “It’s a really dangerous chemical.”
Sufficiently concentrated, methylene chloride will kill anyone. But people with heart conditions face higher risks because it doesn’t take as much carbon monoxide to trigger an attack. Smokers can be affected more quickly, too, given their already-elevated carbon monoxide levels.
In one incident, detailed in the 1976 Journal of the American Medical Association article, a 66-year-old retiree had three heart attacks – the last one fatal – that each began as he was stripping a large chest of drawers.
“Nobody warned him,” said Rosenman, the Michigan State professor.
What Agencies Have Done – and Left Undone
Judy Braiman remembers reading about the heart-attack risk in the 1970s, probably in that same JAMA article. Around 1977, her Empire State Consumer Association in New York petitioned the CPSC to require a warning on methylene chloride paint strippers that “particular care … must be exercised by persons with heart problems or impaired lung function” because carbon monoxide would form in the body from use. The CPSC, alarmed, announced that its staff was drafting a proposed warning.
Braiman, a former CPSC advisor and president of the since-renamed Empire State Consumer Project, clearly remembers seeing the carbon monoxide cautions appear on cans afterward – only to disappear a few years later. The CPSC never did require them, the agency says.
Today, some labels tell customers with heart problems to check with a physician before using paint strippers. The Center could find none that specifically warned about carbon monoxide or heart attacks.
Alex Filip, a spokesman for the CPSC, said by email that he doesn’t have much information on the agency’s methylene chloride work in the 1970s because the staffers involved are all gone. As to why the commission didn’t consider regulation more recently, he suggested that its hands are tied – something that was not communicated to the state officials in the letters responding to their requests for help.
“One fact that stands out in our early investigation is that the injury and death information indicates that this is largely a workplace issue, which is outside of our jurisdiction,” Filip wrote. CPSC staff tell him their review of epidemiology data found no people who died as a result of using the products as consumers, and they believe the agency’s stance on warning labels is “still appropriate.”
Yet deaths from the solvent that involve consumers, though far harder to track than worker fatalities, have occurred in the US The CPSC, in fact, said in its 1978 announcement of proposed warnings that it was aware of “at least three” heart-attack deaths among people using methylene chloride paint strippers in 1976 alone. In 1990, a coroner blamed the chemical after Julette “Julie” Jenkins, a 28-year-old Ohio woman who had been stripping a desk in her attic, dropped dead on the first floor, teacup in hand. And an 80-year-old man died from unintentionally inhaling methylene chloride in 2013, the poison control center system reported.
As the CPSC notes, another agency is working on the issue now – the EPA. Paint strippers with methylene chloride are a test case, one of a handful of chemical uses the EPA recently assessed in hopes of using the weak Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, to actually control toxic substances.
“About one person per year over the last dozen years or so has died, usually in an enclosed space like a bathroom,” Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said of methylene chloride strippers. “Certainly [that] is what jumped out at us. But when we did the assessment, we also found cancer risks.”
The solvent industry opposes the effort. After the EPA identified methylene chloride in 2012 as a chemical it intended to assess, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance told the agency it was “mystified” by the attention. Methylene chloride “is more than adequately regulated” already, wrote Graul, the group’s executive director.
Paint stripper warning labels, in Spanish as well as English, all advise against using the products in poorly ventilated areas, she said in a recent interview. Some give bathrooms as an example.
“There are precautions on how to use it, how not to use it,” Graul said. “Amateurs were taking it and stripping bathtubs with it, with no ventilation, and there were fatalities as a result.”
But a Center review of products sold at 15 home-improvement stores in the Baltimore-Washington region did not turn up any that explained, on the label, the potentially fatal consequences of using without sufficient airflow. The closest to it: that “intentional misuse” – so-called huffing to get a chemical high – could result in death.
Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity.