Methylene Chloride Deaths: “All Preventable”

methylene chloride
Kevin Hartley

Methylene chloride kills. We wrote about 21-year old Kevin Hartley last June. He died last April 29 — Workers Memorial Day — while when he was overcome by methylene chloride while stripping a bath tub. Seventeen workers have died from over-exposure to methylene chloride between 2000 and 2015, and probably at least as many consumers.

“Methylene chloride is too dangerous to keep on the store shelves,” said Dr. Robert Harrison of the University of California San Francisco in a CBS interview (and video – below).  Harrison works in occupational health. He says in a small room, just a half gallon’s worth of product containing that chemical can lead to a buildup of vapors that can prove lethal in less than an hour.  “It’s immediately dangerous to life and health. It causes death,” Harrison said. Harrison says that all of those deaths were preventable.

The video below also includes an interview with Hartley’s mother.

The EPA proposed last year to ban methylene chloride, as is the state of California,  but the Halogenated Solvents Industry Association (HSIA) argues all that’s needed is a better label. But if people don’t read the label? Or don’t understand it? Or if you’re a day laborer trying to support your family, and your employer says “Hey, don’t worry. Get in there a do this. Or you’re fired!”

The HSIA representative says there is no information about whether people actually read labels and doesn’t even know how you’d research that, although CBS uncovered an EPA study that says that multiple steps are required by the consumer to make labels effective.  And the best way to protect people is to eliminate (or remove) the risk. Harrison confirms that “Most people don’t read the label,” which, according to the industry, makes these deaths the user’s fault. The European union, by the way, banned the use of methylene chloride in 2011.

methylene chloride
The solution. According to the solvents industry.

HSIA issued an official response to the CBS report, basically reiterating that “Methylene chloride is an essential ingredient for removing paint and varnish and refinishing furniture,” alternatives aren’t as effective, existing OSHA and Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations work, and that all users “take appropriate safety precautions.  “Methylene chloride should always be used in accordance with manufacturers’ labels.” HSIA is recommending an improved label, with a bathtub with a line crossed through it. (see right)

The HSIA instructions also warn workers to “Use respiratory protection when vapor concentrations may exceed OSHA limits, and pay particular attention to working in a closed environment.” This assumes that workers know, and can measure, the OSHA limit, and that they know what respirator to wear.

OSHA’s short term exposure limit to methylene chloride, by the way, is 125 parts per million, as measured over a 15-minute period. Respirators are only to be used if engineering controls (like ventilation) are inadequate, and paper masks or even cartridge masks are not adequate. Depending on the exposure level, some kind of supplied air respirator is needed — which means a whole face respirator with a hose supplying air, or a self-contained-breathing-apparatus (SCBA) like SCUBA divers wear. But of course, supplied air respirators are much more expensive than cartridge respirators, so contractors often don’t purchase them.

Hartley was using a respirator when he died — but only an inadequate (and illegal) two-cartridge mask. And by the time you start feeling the effect of the chemical, it may be too late.

The vapors can cause “intoxication-like effects,” says Ronald Hall, an industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “People get dizzy; they get nauseous. When that kind of stuff happens, they aren’t thinking clearly.”

Refinishers often don’t realize they are in trouble until it’s too late, Hall says.

And, of course, even if you get out of the bathroom alive, methylene chloride has been proven to cause cancer.

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See Also: Century Foundation: EPA Foot-Dragging on Methylene Chloride Is Endangering Workers and Consumers

Chemical Standards Environmental Protection Agency Fatalities OSHA

11 Comments

      1. I wish I could speak to you about my exposed household to this Methylene chloride a year ago… Sick feeling ever since please please help us

  1. With all due respect, if people are not reading labels and adhering to them? They are Darwin Award cases. If my boss told me “Ignore the safety rules on these things!” I would tell him, day laborer or not, “I quit!”
    Nearly all chemicals for stripping paint are hazardous in confined spaces. That is why the best standard is to wear full body scuba-tank like equipment with an external air source.

    1. Not always that easy. Sometimes the labels are gone, or not clear. People’s interpretation of “adequate ventilation” may differ. And it’s not always easy for someone who is trying to feed their family on minimum wage or less to just quit, especially when the boss says it’s OK and others are willing to do it.

  2. Singling out Methylene Chloride is just plain dumb. If you are using ANY organic solvent in ANY enclosed area, regardless if you are using a respirator or not, you are just asking for trouble. ANY organic solvent in an enclosed area will displace oxygen to the point that you WILL pass out. And a respirator (unless it is an SCBA) will not provide you with oxygen.

    Just don’t be stupid when using organic solvents. Use them outside, or open a window and have fans blowing in fresh air. And if anyone tells you to “just get in there and do it”, get the hell out of there and find another job. You can’t get another job when you are dead.

  3. As a chemist who regularly uses methylene chloride, I don’t think banning this chemical is the solution. Almost any organic solvent is toxic–what we need is for society to be widely educated about the risks. I don’t think twice about using an organic solvent, but I also have a healthy respect for them. We use fume hoods and gloves. Any ‘bad’ organic solvent smell you experience is toxic. I would never consider using paint stripper inside, even if the windows are open and fans are on. I’ve dragged pieces of furniture outside to strip them even through it was a huge pain, and I walk away if I start to really smell it. A lot of solvents also readily pass through skin. For example, people use lighter fluid with bare hands to clean off sticky residue etc and those hydrocarbons in lighter fluid pass right through the skin. I would recommend that paint strippers are sold with a label that says FOR OUTDOOR USE ONLY. Yes, equipment exists where they can be used safely inside, but it’s expensive/uncommon. If someone has the equipment to use them safely inside then fine, but a ‘for outdoor use only’ label will prevent people from thinking a cracked window constitutes ‘well ventilated area.’

  4. If you are working with solvents (of any kind) and you feel dizzy, light headed or nauseous that means the fumes are affecting your central nervous system. You should not feel anything like this when using any sort of chemical. If you do, you should immediately leave the area. If you must return and continue working, then make sure there is air flow into the space before continuing. Open windows, doors, turn on a fan. Whatever it takes to keep fresh air moving into the space.

    Methylene Chloride is a strong smelling solvent and it should be obvious that it is not good to inhale the fumes. If you keep inhaling strong fumes, you should stop and figure out how to get fresh air into the workspace.

  5. I Worked a BL for 14 years and was exposed and cut up car bodies at least 14 people died over the years some young even a lady in a kiosk facing a tank of this obnoxious chemical I have a urostomy colostomy removal of my Gall bladder and now on Dialysis three times a week to stay alive i contacted two prime ministers two health ministers health and safety cancer research and my MP Prince charles and prince harry and Unite the union i was in I was given a solicitor who was corrupt and went to a legal ombudsman whic took six months and was awarded one hundred pounds for my postage My MP has since sent me a letter for a ban on this toxic chemical in the UN i sent my correspondence to the prime minister and it was binned I worked twelve hours a day seven days a week THe Prime Minister said If You work hard you will be rewarded I Have a Death Sentence

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