Do you clean your countertops with vinegar? Scrub your tub with baking soda? Clean your windows with cornstarch? Many of us are trying as best we can to get all of the toxic chemicals out of our homes. But sometimes elbow grease just won’t cut it and we need to reach for the nasty stuff. The warning labels on the chemicals that we keep under our sinks, in our basements, and in our garages should be enough to engender a sense of caution, but every once in awhile the labels can be imperfect. A recent study from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) proved just that, and also called into question the EPA’s role of enforcing toxic chemicals in our environment.
The chemical in question is methylene chloride, which is commonly found in paint thinners. The CPI Report concluded that products containing this solvent have been responsible for 56 deaths since 1980. Often these deaths involve asphyxiation and they happen in poorly ventilated areas, according to the CPI report:
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.
Fifty-six deaths in over 35 years may not seem like a large amount, but the report also found that there are an average of 2,700 calls to poison control and 950 hospitalizations due to methylene chloride every year. CPI also points out that though warning labels make a reference to long-term exposure and cancer risk, they fail to mention anything about the risk of death. If they had, perhaps all of those tragic incidents could have been avoided.
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.
The lethalness of the chemical is not new. Over three years ago, CDC published a study that found a high death toll due to methylene chloride, and its dangers have been noted since the late 1940s. So, why is its cautionary labeling so weak? CPI explains that chemical industry lobbying has prevented EPA from taking meaningful action. Industry groups like The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance has moored itself in opposition of more regulations on the chemical and kept the EPA at bay for decades:
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.
It seems, though, that despite its over 30 years of silence the EPA may be taking new action on the chemical in the next year or so. International precedence and consumer protection advocacy are clearly responsible for this EPA change of heart, but the extent to which the EPA will actually flex its muscles remains to be seen according to Jamie Smith Hopkins, author of the CPI report who was recently interviewed by Ari Shapiro on NPR:
The European Union banned it from general use, which actually means the general public—consumers—but also generally professionals. They figured it was really only safe in engineered industrial environments. It's really sort of unclear why the U.S. hasn't done more up to this point. The EPA is now considering a role which could involve stricter warnings. It could involve restrictions. It could be a ban. We'll have to wait till next year to see what they want to do.
Pardon the morose pun, but let’s not hold our breath for the EPA. Anyone trying to make their home a green and toxic-free sanctuary should probably put methylene chloride on their list of chemicals to avoid at all costs. If you are about to do a project where paint removal is necessary and you don’t have a sandblaster handy, check out this article in SF Gate by Kristine Tucker. She gives five safer ways to get the job done...safely.
Common solvent keeps killing workers, consumers via publicintegrity.org
Key findings from our solvents investigation via publicintegrity.org
Three decades of death via publicintegrity.org
Chemical Used For Stripping Bathtubs Kills 13 via npr.org
Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson