Many toxic substances harm people slowly, causing serious illnesses years after repeated exposure.
But methylene chloride’s fumes are so dangerous, the chemical can kill you in a matter of minutes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned consumer sales of paint strippers with this ingredient in 2019 after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity into a decades-long string of methylene chloride deaths — and a sustained campaign by relatives of its victims and safety advocates to press the EPA to act.
The coalition pushed for more: Workers weren’t protected by the narrow restrictions, they said. The vast majority of deaths Public Integrity traced to methylene chloride exposure happened on the job. And paint strippers were far from the only product you could find it in.
Now the EPA is proposing to ban most uses of methylene chloride — still with some on-the-job exceptions, but far fewer.
“I’m sort of stunned, you know?” said Brian Wynne, whose 31-year-old brother, Drew, died in 2017 while removing paint from his business’ walk-in freezer. Wynne had thought the EPA’s 2019 action on paint stripper “would be as far as we possibly could get — that we ran into a brick wall of funded lobbyists and councils that are paid to keep people like us away and ensure that their bottom line is prioritized ahead of safety.”
The proposed rule would prohibit methylene chloride in all consumer products and “most industrial and commercial uses,” the agency said in its announcement last week.
The EPA said it hopes the rule will take effect in August 2024. Federal rules must go through a set process to give the public a chance to influence the final outcome.
The chemical, also known as dichloromethane, can be found in products on retail shelves such as aerosol degreasers and brush cleaners for paints and coatings. Adhesives and sealants sold for commercial purposes use it. Manufacturers tap it to make other chemicals.
At least 85 people have died from methylene chloride’s quick-acting harms since 1980, including workers who had safety training and protective equipment, the agency said.
That figure comes from a 2021 study by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the University of California, San Francisco, that quantified the ongoing fatalities, building on Public Integrity’s earlier tally. The number is almost certainly an undercount because one of the ways methylene chloride kills is by triggering a heart attack, which can look to observers like death from natural causes unless someone thinks to do a toxicology test.
The chemical has also caused “severe and long-lasting health impacts” such as cancer in people whose exposure didn’t rise to immediately lethal levels, the EPA said.
“Methylene chloride’s hazards,” the agency wrote in its proposed rule, “are well established.”
So well established, in fact, that experts say the federal government should have acted long before.
Public Integrity’s 2015 investigation turned up multiple missed opportunities for intervention since the 1970s that could have saved lives. Yet more deaths occurred amid delays after the EPA first proposed a rule at the end of the Obama administration in January 2017 — the Trump administration shelved the proposal until pressured to act.
‘Protect as many people as possible’
Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future, is among the people working for years to stop methylene chloride’s killing spree. She hailed the proposed-ban announcement as “a big day.”
“Again, people have died using these chemicals,” she said. “People have gotten sick being nearby when people are using these chemicals, people have gotten chronic illnesses from the use of these chemicals. We want to make sure we protect as many people as possible.”
But she wasn’t happy to hear that the EPA believes the rule won’t be finalized for 15 more months.
And Lauren Atkins, whose 31-year-old son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper to refinish his BMX bike, worries about the impact of the uses that won’t be banned. Seeing those loopholes in the announcement hit her hard.
“I about jumped out of my shoes until I actually read the whole thing, and then I was pretty sad,” said Atkins, whose driving goal since her son’s death has been to get methylene chloride off the market so it can’t kill anyone else. “I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”
The chemical’s use in pharmaceutical manufacturing isn’t covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act, so that isn’t prohibited in the proposed rule, the EPA said. Workers who continue to use methylene chloride in other activities the proposal would allow, the agency said, would be covered by a new “workplace chemical protection program with strict exposure limits.” Methylene chloride kills when its fumes build up in enclosed spaces.
Some higher-volume uses would remain in those exceptions, which include “mission-critical” or “safety-critical” work by the military, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and their contractors; use in laboratories; and companies using it as a reactant or manufacturing it for the allowed purposes, the EPA said.
But some of those exceptions would end after 10 years.
And most uses would be prohibited.
There would be no more methylene chloride in paint strippers beyond the federal-agency exceptions. The product was a common cause of reported deaths, frequently among workers refinishing old bathtubs in homes and apartments.
“I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”Lauren Atkins, whose son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper on his bike
And methylene chloride would no longer be allowed in commercial and industrial vapor degreasing, adhesive removal, finishing products for textiles, liquid lubricants, hobby glue and a long list of other applications.
“Currently, an estimated 845,000 individuals are exposed to methylene chloride in the workplace,” the EPA said in a statement. “Under EPA’s proposal, less than 10,000 workers, protected from unreasonable risk via a required workplace chemical protection program, are expected to continue to use methylene chloride.”
Dr. Robert Harrison, a clinical professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has focused on methylene chloride for roughly a decade. He said the EPA is walking a line with the proposal, trying to balance safety with economic and national-security considerations, and he finds the extent of the ban heartening.
“I think that this is a win. It’s a win for workers,” said Harrison, who worked on the 2021 study about fatalities caused by the chemical. “This sets a really great precedent for making decisions based on clear-cut science and establishing the principle … that we should move away from these toxic chemicals to safer substitutes where the harm clearly outweighs the benefits.”
You might think a chemical can’t be sold on the market unless it’s deemed safe. But that’s not how the U.S. system works.
Concerns about chemical safety prompted Congress to pass the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, setting some requirements for chemicals. But those were widely seen as weak, giving the EPA no authority to broadly assess safety. A federal inventory published in 1982 counted roughly 62,000 chemicals, a number that’s continued to grow.
“This is what we worked so hard to reform TSCA to do,” said Hitchcock, who shared the Public Integrity investigation with congressional offices during that period as a potent example of deadly inaction.
The next step for the proposed methylene chloride ban is a 60-day public comment period. People will be able to weigh in on the EPA’s docket — and safety advocates are organizing around that.
“This is a big step forward for public health, but it’s not without its flaws,” Hitchcock said. She’s hoping to see comments that “urge EPA to enact the strongest rule possible.”
Harrison used to say that chemical regulation in the U.S. moved at a glacial speed — until glaciers started outpacing it. But he does see improvement since the 2016 TSCA amendments. The new regulatory action on methylene chloride makes him hopeful.
“There are many other chemicals that can follow the decision that the USA has made about methylene chloride,” he said.