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Center For Public Integrity Details Dangers Of Paint Stripper Solvent


Now a warning about a product you may have used in your own home. A solvent that's common in paint strippers has been blamed for dozens of deaths, many of them sudden, since the 1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on new rules for the chemical called methylene chloride. Companies that sell it say it is safe when used correctly. Now the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity has detailed how researchers have sounded alarms about the solvent for years, but it remains on the shelves. We're joined now by Jamie Smith Hopkins who wrote this story. Welcome.

JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS: Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Will you just start by reading the first sentence of this piece?


(Reading) Jonathan Welch was 18 and working through lunch when the fumes killed him, stealing oxygen from his brain, stopping his heart.

SHAPIRO: This happened in 1999. What happened to this man?

HOPKINS: He was at his job. This was an after-school job that went full-time after he graduated from high school when he was a week away from starting college. He was working stripping furniture of paint, working over that with a mixture of chemicals that was mostly methylene chloride.

And he was working through lunch. He was alone in the room, and when the owner came in, he found him slumped over the tank. His arm was in the chemicals. His hair was just brushing it. And so the owner tried to revive him. He was rushed to the hospital. They were able to restart his heart, but in the end, he was declared brain-dead.

SHAPIRO: This is a product that comes with health warnings, but the health warnings are about the long-term possibilities of cancer from prolonged exposure. There's no health warning about the kind of reaction you're describing - suddenly dropping dead.

HOPKINS: That's right. And so the warning labels - all of them say do not use in an area without enough ventilation. And some of them give examples like, don't use in bathrooms; don't use in basements. But what they don't say is the consequences of this inadequate airflow.

SHAPIRO: Describe exactly what this chemical is and why it is so common, where we might find it.

HOPKINS: It's a solvent, actually the main ingredient in most paint strippers. It's not in every paint stripper, but it's in most of them. And you can also find it in some other products like adhesives, in some cases. In fact, some of the deaths that were linked to methylene chloride were as a result of adhesive use like gluing carpet in a boat, for instance. But many of the deaths involved paint strippers.

SHAPIRO: And it's been banned in Europe, from what I understand, but not in the U.S. Explain that distinction.

HOPKINS: Yeah. So the European Union banned it from general use, which actually means the general public - consumers - but also generally professionals. They figured it was really only safe in engineered industrial environments. It's really sort of unclear why the U.S. hasn't done more up to this point. The EPA is now considering a role which could involve stricter warnings. It could involve restrictions. It could be a ban. We'll have to wait till next year to see what they want to do.

SHAPIRO: But the lack of warnings is not for lack of knowledge that this is problematic. People have been raising red flags for a really long time, as you report in this piece.

HOPKINS: That's absolutely right. In the 1970s, actually, there was a paper written by two medical researchers that pointed out the risk of a heart attack from using this chemical. That's one of the ways it can trigger death. And the writers were criticizing federal agencies for being mute on the subject. The Consumer Product Safety Commission considered warnings and ultimately did not require them.

SHAPIRO: Why did the Center for Public Integrity decide to look into this issue?

HOPKINS: We heard from a public health official that this is a problem. There was a paper written about it by researchers several years ago when they realized that people working on bathtubs - stripping old bathtubs - were dying frequently from this. And then we realized this was still happening. The most recent death was in July, and we thought that this is a situation where lack of information is literally killing people.

SHAPIRO: And finally, what are the companies that manufacture these products say about the safety of them?

HOPKINS: They say if people follow the instructions, then they're safe.

SHAPIRO: That's Jamie Smith Hopkins who investigated deaths among people working with a solvent commonly found in paint strippers and other products. Thank you very much.

HOPKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.