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.
It still can. And it’s still killing people.
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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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S., 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, U.S. 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.