paint stripper safety

Unequal Risk

Published — January 8, 2019

Restrictions on deadly paint strippers near the finish line

A still from a safety video on paint strippers. (California Department of Public Health)


Jan. 8: This story was updated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finally finished working on a rule to restrict paint removers that have killed dozens of people — after nearly two years of delays, during which four more men died while using the products. 

Now it’s up to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to decide whether to let the restrictions go into effect, a process that could be quick — or could drag on for months. Normally, OMB review is supposed to last no more than 90 days, but one worker-safety rule languished at the agency for 2 ½ years before it was finalized in 2013. 

The EPA’s rule targets paint strippers with methylene chloride, a solvent that can quickly kill while people are using it. A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation, cited in the EPA’s rulemaking, found at least 56 deaths in the United States since 1980 that were linked to methylene chloride. When used in enclosed areas, its fumes build up, posing a potent risk of asphyxiation. It can also trigger a heart attack. 

Roughly a dozen retailers have either stopped or promised to shortly stop selling paint strippers with methylene chloride, after the relatives of recent victims urged them to do so. The relatives and both Democratic and Republican members of Congress also pressed the EPA to act, and the agency said in May that it would “shortly” send a final rule to OMB. But OMB, which updated its website this week to show it had received the rule, indicated that the EPA did not send it until Dec. 21. 

“This step by the EPA is due in large part to brave and relentless advocacy by the families of methylene chloride victims,” Liz Hitchcock, director of the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said in a statement. “Despite their pain, they shared their loved ones’ stories time and again until decision makers listened.” 

The EPA, now caught up in the government shutdown, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Updated Jan. 8, 3 p.m.: While the contents of the rule are not yet public, including how the agency intends to restrict the use of methylene chloride in paint removers, the EPA signaled that it focused its protections on consumers but not workers. The same day it sent OMB its final rule, the EPA also forwarded an advance notice of a proposed rule it labeled a methylene chloride “Commercial Paint and Coating Removal Training, Certification and Limited Access Program.” Handling workplace exposures separately “is deferring for years needed action to protect workers,” the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

Most of the reported methylene chloride deaths occurred on the job, said Lindsay McCormick, chemicals and health project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. 

“EPA had the opportunity to do the right thing,” McCormick said in an interview. Instead, she said, the agency is following in the footsteps of mass retailers on consumer protection and leaving workers, some of whom use paint removers acquired from specialty distributors, in the lurch.

Brian Wynne, whose brother Drew died in 2017 while using a methylene chloride stripper to remove paint in his business’ walk-in freezer, had predicted in mid-December that the EPA would act before the end of 2018. President Donald Trump has said he plans to nominate EPA’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, to run the agency on a permanent basis. A nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works would almost certainly bring pointed questions about the status of the rule, Wynne noted. 

Wheeler faced such questions from that committee at a hearing in August, and so did another EPA official at a nomination hearing in November. 

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