Study: More Deaths Linked to Methylene Chloride


A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine earlier this week associates paint-stripping chemical methylene chloride to more deaths than what has previously been acknowledged by the Environmental Protection Agency, calling back into question the EPA's partial ban on the substance.

Researchers consulted studies and government databases for death associated with methylene chloride from 1980 to 2018, as well as analyzed inspection reports, medical reports and autopsy reports from August 2018 to August 2020.

Their study indicated 85 deaths tied to the chemical during the 1980-2018 timeframe, with 87% of those occurring in workplaces. The EPA has acknowledged 53 of those deaths.

“Results of this case series demonstrated that despite regulations to address the toxic effects of methylene chloride use for consumers and workers, there are continuing fatalities in the US, particularly in occupational settings,” researchers wrote. “Prevention of fatalities associated with methylene chloride exposure should emphasize the use of safer substitutes, rather than hazard warnings or reliance on personal protective equipment.”

The EPA banned the commercial sale of the chemical a few years ago, but stopped short of a full ban, drawing widespread criticism that the researchers echoed.

“The EPA’s 2020 evaluation of methylene chloride found that all consumer uses and most commercial uses variously exceeded health benchmarks of concern for acute, chronic, and cancer risks. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires that the EPA take action to effectively mitigate these risks,” the researchers concluded. “According to the NIOSH hierarchy of controls, elimination is the most effective option to remove the hazards of methylene chloride.”

EPA and Methylene Chloride Background

In January 2017, the EPA announced that it was considering a ban on the use of methylene chloride. Reports under the Obama administration determined that the common chemical in paint-strippers placed consumers, workers and bystanders at an unreasonable risk of injury.

In May 2018, the EPA announced that it would be moving forward with that original ruling and stated that, as part of its requirement in the switch from the Lautenberg Chemical Safety to the Toxic Substances Control Act, it was nearing completion of the Problem Formulations portion of a review of 10 specific chemicals, and had made a decision on methylene chloride.

The update at the time said that the EPA:

  • Intended to finalize the methylene chloride rulemaking;
  • Was not re-evaluating the paint-stripping uses of methylene chloride and was relying on its previous risk assessments; and
  • Was working to send the finalized rulemaking to the White House Office of Management and Budget shortly.

The previous risk assessment that the announcement referred to was that January 2017 determination, when the agency first proposed prohibiting the consumer and commercial paint-stripping uses for the chemical.

At that time, the EPA said that dangers regarding methylene chloride include death (due to asphyxiation), liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, reproductive toxicity and certain cancers.

“Some of these health effects result from a very short, acute exposure; others follow years of occupational exposure,” the EPA noted.

The original 2017 277-page proposal called for a prohibition on the manufacture (including import), processing and distribution of these chemicals in commerce. The proposal also talked about restricting the sale of small-volume products and requiring companies to notify retailers and others in the supply chain regarding such prohibitions.

Since then, several paint manufacturers and box stores have discontinued the manufacturing or sale of products that contain methylene chloride, and a group of environment and public health advocates had notified the EPA of its intent to sue over its failure to finalize a rule.

Lawsuits and Rulings

Groups including Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and two families of victims who have died from methylene chloride exposure filed a lawsuit against the EPA over its failure to prohibit the use of the chemical on Jan. 14 in the U.S. District Court of Vermont.

USMC / Cpl. Rubin J. Tan

Researchers consulted studies and government databases for death associated with methylene chloride from 1980 to 2018, as well as analyzed inspection reports, medical reports and autopsy reports from August 2018 to August 2020.

The lawsuit was first threatened back in November 2018, when the groups notified the EPA of its intent to sue. The group refers to the TSCA, which requires the EPA to regulate chemicals that present an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

Specifically, the group asked the court to finalize the original January 2017 proposed TSCA Section 6 rule, which completely bans the product.

However, the reports from EPA documents released shortly before the suit was filed showed that the EPA intended to ban the retail use of the chemical—not an industry-wide ban.

Sure enough, in March 2019, the EPA issued the final rule to prohibit the manufacture and importing, processing and distribution of methylene chloride in all paint removers for consumer use. However, sales to contractors and other professionals remained available.

The decision drew immediate backlash from public health advocates, as employees of professionals who still use methylene chloride remain at risk of death and long-term health effects.

Various manufacturers of the methylene-chloride-based strippers have argued that the products are safe, if those using it have adequate training and are pleased that the EPA is considering establishing a federal training and certificate program.

In September, the EPA released a guide to help processors and distributors comply with the final rule, most notably the requirements for downstream notification and recordkeeping for all manufacturers, processors and distributors of the chemical—including retailers—which went into effect Aug. 27.

And in early November, the EPA asked for public input on a draft risk evaluation of more than 70 uses for methylene chloride, including commercial paint and coating removal, consumer adhesives, sealants, degreasers, cleaners and automobile care products.

Finally, on Nov. 22, the EPA announced that its decision to ban all retail distribution of methylene chloride to consumers for paint and coatings removal officially went into effect.

In June of last year, the EPA released the first completed risk evaluation of the chemical, which showed that there are unreasonable risks to workers, occupational non-users, consumers and bystanders under 47 out of the 53 conditions of use for the chemical. The EPA did not find unreasonable risk to the environment.


Tagged categories: Chemical stripping; EPA; EPA; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Methylene chloride; NA; North America; Safety

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