Common Solvent Keeps Killing Workers, Consumers
Regulators have been slow to act on paint strippers, other products containing methylene chloride
Rita Welch’s son, Johnathan, died on the job at 18 while stripping furniture with methylene chloride.*
By Jamie Smith Hopkins
5:00 am, September 21, 2015 Updated: 12:26 pm, September 21, 2015
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.
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.
Three decades of death
Methylene chloride, a common ingredient in products such as paint strippers, can kill when its fumes build up in an enclosed area. The Center for Public Integrity, combing through workplace death investigations, coroners’ reports and poison control center reports, found 56 deaths since 1980 that authorities linked to unintentional overexposure to the chemical. The number is likely an undercount because there is no single tally of such deaths. Unless otherwise noted, the key source of information is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or state workplace-safety agencies.
(TYH Note: *This sentence has been edited slightly for publication on this blog)