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Getting Dangerous Paint Strippers Off the Shelves

Lowe’s, Sherwin-Williams, and Home Depot do the right thing in removing paint strippers that contain a dangerous chemical

Paint and varnish strippers containing methylene chloride will be removed from the shelves by Lowe's, Home Depot, and Sherwin Williams. The chemical has been blamed for more than 60 deaths in the U.S. since 1980, but is still permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Image Credit: Etan J. Tal via Wikimedia

By SHELLEY POTICHA

Three American companies have moved to protect people’s lives from a deadly chemical that the federal government has so far refused to ban from store shelves — a major victory in the fight to stop the dismantling of protections against toxic substances in our workplaces, homes, and lives.

We hope this bold action against the sale of methylene chloride in response to public pressure will inspire the federal government to do what’s right and follow suit.

Without an outright ban there’s still a chance for another tragic story like that of young entrepreneur Drew Wynne, who was fatally overcome by toxic fumes from methylene chloride, commonly found in paint strippers.

Less than a year ago, Wynne’s business partner found him dead after Wynne, 31, attempted to resurface the floor of a walk-in refrigerator at his cold brew coffee company in Charleston, S.C., with a paint stripper containing methylene chloride that he bought at Lowe’s. Wynne was wearing a respirator and gloves.

His devastated family discovered that dozens of other people have died from exposure to the chemical over that last several decades — even though it is readily available over the counter to consumers.

Deadly legacy

Methylene chloride has been linked to more than 60 deaths nationwide since 1980 and is also linked to lung and liver cancer, neurotoxicity, and reproductive toxicity. Another dangerous paint stripper, N-methylpyrrolidone, or NMP, which will also be removed, has been found to hinder fetal development and can cause miscarriage and stillbirth. According to the EPA, more than 60,000 U.S. workers and 2 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride and NMP annually.

Lowe’s announced in late May that it will no longer sell products containing methylene chloride and NMP — some 19 products in all, under brand names such as Goof Off, Jasco, and Klean Strip.

Two weeks after the Lowe’s announcement, Sherwin-Williams, too, said publicly it will pull these toxic products off the shelves. Then, June 19, Home Depot followed suit, meaning the three major retailers selling these chemicals will remove them from their stores by the end of the year.

We hope that the Environmental Protection Agency will follow the logic that we and our close partner Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, as well as other coalition members laid out for the retailers and put the United States in the company of the other countries that have declared a ban.

Story behind the story

Lowe’s decision came after more than 200,000 consumers nationwide, including tens of thousands of National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) online activists, signed petitions urging the company to act. In early May, advocates held a week of action in more than a dozen states following a letter by our coalition that generated more than 40,000 public comments to the company and more than three million views of an NRDC Instagram video calling for Lowe’s to lead the industry in a ban.

NRDC also purchased a stock share in Lowe’s in order to attend its June shareholder meeting to make our case directly to the board and CEO, and we planned a press conference prior to the meeting. After learning of our plans, Lowe’s acted before the press conference and meeting, garnering positive headlines about its action and avoiding negative ones about its lack thereof.

Pruitt’s stubborn EPA

In January 2017, the EPA proposed banning paint strippers containing these chemicals under the newly strengthened Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), citing the products’ unreasonable risks to human health. However, deferring to the wishes of the chemical industry, the agency later shelved the proposed ban soon after Scott Pruitt was confirmed as EPA Administrator, and Pruitt has failed to finalize the ban over the past 18 months.

In May of this year, two days after Pruitt met with families who have lost loved ones due to methylene chloride exposure in the past 18 months, the EPA announced that it would finalize a methylene chloride rule. However, the agency has revealed few details on its planned regulatory action, offered no timeline, and has taken no final action.

The public fight with EPA over methylene chloride and NMP in paint-strippers is one important piece of a larger battle with the industry-friendly interests now in charge, including efforts to compel bans, testing requirements and other actions on other toxic solvents, “Teflon-like” PFAS chemicals, and organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos.

People can act

It also signals an effective tactic in our efforts against toxics: When the federal government won’t do the right thing, taking the case to the American people will keep the pressure on to get dangerous chemicals that damage our and our children’s health off the market.

The vigorous and brave actions of the families of those hurt and killed by these toxics was key in educating millions of Americans and inspiring thousands to speak out.

As a result, this victory signals that the chemical industry, with its vast financial resources, consultants, lobbyists, and a friendly EPA trying to dismantle science programs, right-to-know programs, and toxics programs, won’t always get its way.

We will continue to work on multiple fronts, choose our battles, and fight at the federal and state levels and in the marketplace with concerned Americans to take on the industry on behalf of human health and well-being.

Shelley Poticha is managing director, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program, at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This post originally appeared at the NRDC Expert Blog.

9 Comments

  1. Bradley Weingartner | | #1

    I agree with Doug
    In this case, I suspect the issue was not the toxicity of the methylene chloride but rather it's low vapor pressure combined with a small enclosed area.

    If the temp was warm, and the amount of product used was large (like would occur when stripping a floor), an enclosed area like that is risky regardless of the chemical used. The supplied air respirator is really your only option at that point, but it isn't something the general public is going to consider.

    Ultimately I hate to lose access to a highly effective chemical because a few people made bad choices. Having to use significantly more of another, less effective and theoretically less toxic chemical may not always be a net-gain.

  2. John Clark | | #2

    @Doug
    Yep. The manufacturer should probably have been more specific with regards to what type of respirator. It would also take retailers off the hook from a liability perspective because the salesperson no longer has to offer is recommendation which may be right or wrong.

    My own anecdotal example. If I had not been hazmat certified I wouldn't have been able to tell a, former, part-time employer that their cartridges weren't the correct type for spraying paint in a paint booth. Without that training I would've never thought to look at the cartridges.

    Side Note: Speaking of respirators. The state has contracted out some work on our highway which is mostly concrete and last week I saw a working making cuts in said concrete w/out wearing a mask. The worker was covered in a layer of concrete dust. Dumb dumb dumb.

  3. Doug Fitz-Randolph | | #3

    Respiratory Protection
    I have mixed feelings about banning such chemicals, since the safer alternatives rarely work as well, but from a public health perspective it no doubt makes sense.

    One thing that is surely lacking, though, is easy-to-understand information about respiratory protection.

    Many people believe wearing a respirator with organic vapor cartridges makes them invincible. "If I can't smell it, it must be working" seems to be a common belief. However, many substances can pass through these cartridges, and have no detectable odor at levels well above those which are considered dangerous... such as methylene chloride. Additionally, similar to wearing sunglasses without UV protection which filter-out only visible light, organic vapor cartridges can often filter-out the compounds which do have a detectable odor, while allowing dangerous, odorless compounds to pass through, giving the user a false sense of security that their mask is protecting them.

    Information regarding specifically what your respirator protects you from and what it does not, and what precautions should be taken when using different chemicals, is available, but is often of a highly technical nature, and often targeted at occupational safety professionals, or printed in type so small as to be unreadable. A "surgeon general" style warning stating "Wearing a respirator will not protect you from this product" would seem a prudent measure. A quick reference "What will this cartridge protect me from?" guide included with respirators and cartridges seems like a good idea too.

    I checked a package of respirator cartridges I purchased recently. The data sheet does provide good information - including a warning that they do not protect against methylene chloride - but it's several paragraphs deep in print so small I need reading glasses to see it.

    The can of methylene chloride based stripper I have actually says "If properly used, a respirator (but not a dust mask) may offer additional protection." Sure, a supplied-air respirator would offer additional protection, but most people buying paint stripper at the local hardware store won't have one of those, or probably even know what one is. They'll generally assume "Oh, I know how to use my respirator properly - I'll be all set". Wow, what a misleading and dangerous statement!

  4. Wes Stewart | | #4

    John's comment
    "Side Note: Speaking of respirators. The state has contracted out some work on our highway which is mostly concrete and last week I saw a working making cuts in said concrete w/out wearing a mask. The worker was covered in a layer of concrete dust. Dumb dumb dumb."

    A few years ago I hired a landscape contractor to build an enclosed patio with brick pavers. I specifically stated that I didn't want any illegal aliens on site. He swore that "they all have papers." The contractor never managed the job, so I essentially became the designer/supervisor. A couple of the guys were naturalized citizens, everyone else was illegal as stated by the guys who were citizens. All of this is kind of beside the point but offered for context.

    The pet tool for these guys was a gasoline-powered masonry saw. I wanted some concrete piers placed under the brickwork for future use so I supplied some lumber for form work. I offered to cut it to size on my table saw but they burned through it with the masonry saw. They cut CMUs and brick pavers, without eye protection, ear protection or dusk masks. I had all that stuff in my shop and offered it to them but they declined, telling me, "Oh, we have all of that stuff in the truck but we don't like to use it."

    As John says, dumb dumb dumb.

  5. But Why? | | #5

    Methylene chloride has been
    Methylene chloride has been linked to more than 60 deaths nationwide since 1980

    According to the EPA, more than 60,000 U.S. workers and 2 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride and NMP annually

    38 years 2,060,000 exposures annually = 78,280,000 exposures SIXTY DEATHS that's .00008% fatality rate or 8 Hundred Thousandths of a Percent. and for this they proudly announce a Conspiracy of Extortion and Coercion against businesses.

  6. User avater
    Peter Engle | | #6

    Masonry dust
    Kind of a thread drift here, but OSHA has finally adopted tighter standards for breathing protection against silica dusts and other construction dusts. You just about have to wear NIOSH rated respirators to sweep the floors at the end of the day now. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

    Of course, they have hearing and eye protection requirements, too and everyone ignores them just the same.

    Maybe we should ban silica?

  7. Josh Wimpey | | #7

    Re: But Why
    By your logic, vehicle fatalities are also very r
    Exceedingly rare on an exposure to death ratio and we should ignore them

  8. Andy Kosick | | #8

    Public availabity, respirator simplification
    The important point here is not that a dangerous substance is used but that it is available to the public with no training whatsoever. I would say harsh paint stripper could continue to exist but for licensed professionals in controlled environments.

    I realized licensing and regulation bother a lot of people but in the complicated world we've created for ourselves, one in which no person can possibly know everything, required training becomes necessary not just to protect the public but to protect us from ourselves.

    Respirators suffer from this same problem. For a long time the big box stores in my area carried respirators but only size medium. If you've had training or even read the instructions you'd know this violates the first rule of respirator safety, that it must be fitted properly, and one size does not fit all. While I'm alright with respirators being available, it must be said that it gives many people the false impression that they have the necessary knowledge to deal with hazardous materials. Something concerning in a society with standing jokes about the fact that nobody reads the instructions.

    I would suggest that at the consumer level NIOSH needs to simplify their system even further and start by burning all of those microscopically printed pamphlets everyone throws away, then institute a very simple letter system. For instance, a hazardous product must have a large label that says "Requires respirator with cartridge A" (really big A). Then you go purchase a respirator with cartridge A. It has got to be this simple or people won't pay attention.

  9. Catherine Brooks | | #9

    Safer paint strippers
    Doug,
    I disagree. There are other safer paint strippers. The Speedheater™Infrared Paint Remover uses rays to heat the paint to only 400-600℉. Lead paint turns to toxic fumes at 1000℉. The rays separate the bottom layer of thick paint or varnish from wood in less than a minute. The soft paint can be scraped into clumps which are easy to contain and dispose of. The wood can be painted immediately. No water or chemicals need to be neutralized or washed away. Eco-Strip.com

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