In October 2017, Drew Wynne collapsed inside a walk-in refrigerator at his coffee business in North Charleston, S.C. By the time his business partner found him crumpled on the floor, Wynne was dead. He had suffocated on a chemical called methylene chloride.
In recent months, some retailers have said they will stop selling products that contain methylene chloride, also known as DCM, and a second chemical, N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone, or NMP. But under the Trump administration, federal regulators have repeatedly delayed a ban that has been in the works for years.
The EPA began a risk assessment of methylene chloride in 2014. In January 2017 the agency proposed banning the use of methylene chloride and NMP in paint removers. In the proposed rule, the agency wrote that the chemicals posed "unreasonable risks" to consumers.
Since 1980, more than 50 deaths had been attributed to methylene chloride, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Slate.
But the proposed rule has yet to become an actual ban. Methylene chloride manufacturers opposed it, and in public comments in the spring of 2017, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance urged the agency to delay it, saying the regulation would have a "devastating impact on consumers and small businesses." A spokesperson for the industry group, Faye Graul, declined to comment for this story, and the major U.S. manufacturer of methylene chloride, W.M. Barr, did not respond to interview requests.
Today, it's still legal to sell products containing both chemicals. Health and safety experts caution consumers to avoid using them — especially indoors.
The other front line
Two days after her son's memorial service, Drew's mother Cindy Wynne saw a story on the front page of the The New York Times that said the EPA was no longer pursuing bans on a handful of chemicals it had determined were hazardous or deadly — including methylene chloride.
"We struggled with that," Cindy remembers. "They weren't going to move forward, even though the ban had been proposed [and] the research had been done."
This spring, Cindy Wynne traveled to Washington, D.C. with another mother whose son died of methylene chloride exposure.
South Carolina's Congressional delegation had helped set up a meeting with then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Wynne's grief was still fresh, and she was unsure what to expect from Pruitt, but "we felt like we had a very positive meeting," she remembers.
Two days later, the EPA announced it intends to ban methylene chloride.
"We were elated. We were believers," says Cindy. "We're making a difference. And then nothing happened." Months dragged by. Pruitt resigned amid an ethics scandal.
Today, the ban is still pending. This October, budget documents released by the Trump administration suggested a rule would be finalized sometime in December, but didn't announce a specific date. And the second hazardous chemical, NMP, is no longer included.
An EPA spokesperson wrote in an email to NPR "For methylene chloride, EPA is currently evaluating the proposal and regulation of this substance and its uses to determine the appropriate regulation."
Not waiting for regulation
But as the nationwide rule has languished, some consumer advocates have taken a parallel route. The vast majority of consumers buy methylene chloride paint removal products at brick-and-mortar retailers; Drew purchased the product that killed him at the hardware store Lowe's.
The chemical safety group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council and with families to pressure retailers to stop selling methylene chloride products. The Wynne family was among those writing letters to stores, trying to convince them to pull the potentially deadly products.
In May, Lowe's announced it would discontinue the products. Home Depot, Sherwin Williams and other major retailers followed. In all, thousands of stores will stop selling methylene chloride paint removers by January.
"In the absence of a federal regulatory driver, some retailers have started to step up and do voluntary restrictions on methylene chloride in paint strippers," says Gregory Morose, a research manager at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. That's good news for his research team; just last month, they announced a new, safer paint stripping chemical they say is just as effective as methylene chloride.
They expect some retailers to start selling the new formulation in the next few months.
Lowe's and Sherwin Williams declined to comment on why they decided to stop selling methylene chloride products voluntarily, or what paint stripper formulations they would stock in the future. Margaret Smith, a spokesperson for the Home Depot, confirmed only that the company "will phase out of paint removal products that contain methylene chloride and NMP by the end of 2018."
Of course, without a federal ban, it's still possible to buy potentially deadly paint removal products at some stores.
"The retailers that have committed — it's only a subset of all the retailers," says Morose. "A restriction by the EPA would be extremely helpful. There are just so many distribution channels for methylene chloride and paint stripping products."
He warns that consumers should read the warnings on products carefully, and avoid exposing themselves to methylene chloride as well as NMP and a handful of other toxic chemicals, including toluene, xylene and naphthalene.
And at least one state is considering its own methylene chloride ban. A bill introduced in Maryland this year would make selling paint removal products containing either methylene chloride or NMP a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine.
"It was an easy bill to introduce, but not an easy bill to get passed," says the bill's sponsor, Clarence Lam, who is also a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University. "You know, the data and the evidence are there. But not everyone understands evidence and science."
Plus, he notes, the chemical industry, "is very well funded when it comes to their team of lobbyists."
Lam says he wishes he didn't have to pursue a state-level regulation. He and his fellow legislators have small staffs and limited time — being a state delegate is a part-time job. Ideally, he says, the federal government should be enacting regulations to protect people from chemicals.
"I think a lot of folks don't realize that EPA, at its heart and at its core, its real mission is to protect the health of the public. It is a public health agency," he says. "The best possible outcome would be to have the EPA ban the use of these chemicals in consumer products."
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Environmental Defense Fund pressured retailers. In fact the Natural Resources Defense Council is the organization pressuring retailers. Both organizations are pushing for a federal ban on methylene chloride paint removers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Families across the United States are fighting with the federal government over a deadly chemical. Dozens of people have died from inhaling methylene chloride. This is an ingredient in common paint removers. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: In October 2017, a 31-year-old named Drew Wynne decided to upgrade the walk-in fridge at his small coffee company in North Charleston, S.C.
CINDY WYNNE: (Laughter). Drew was gregarious. He was brilliant in his coffee business.
HERSHER: That's his mom, Cindy. Anyway, the floor of the cold-brew coffee fridge needed new paint. So Drew went to a hardware store and bought a can of Goof Off paint stripper. On October 13, 2017, his business partner found him collapsed on the floor of the fridge. Cindy Wynne spoke to South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen around the one-year anniversary of her son's death.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Hard to believe it's been a year.
WYNNE: It is. It is. And we don't consider it an anniversary because we all - our family feels anniversaries are something you celebrate. You don't celebrate a death of your child.
HERSHER: Drew died of suffocation. According to the coroner's report, the culprit was a chemical called methylene chloride. It's an ingredient in popular products with brand names like Goof Off, Strypeeze, Klean Strip and Jasco, among others. Methylene chloride has killed at least 58 people since 1980. And because of all those deaths, a few years ago the Environmental Protection Agency started studying methylene chloride, trying to figure out if it should be banned altogether.
So walk me through it. How does the EPA decide to ban a chemical?
RICHARD ENGLER: So there are a variety of mechanisms for...
HERSHER: Richard Engler is a former chemist at the EPA. Now he works for a big D.C. law firm called Bergeson and Campbell. He gamely explained the mind-numbingly boring, very thorough process the EPA uses to figure out whether a chemical is too dangerous for consumers.
ENGLER: What are the exposure levels? What are the circumstances? Are they working in enclosed space? Are they working outside?
HERSHER: It took years to finish asking all those questions. But in 2017, they finally had an answer.
ENGLER: EPA proposed banning the paint removal use for methylene chloride. So you wouldn't be able to go to a store and buy it.
HERSHER: Because it was too dangerous. According to the EPA, methylene chloride and another chemical, called NMP, posed, quote, "unreasonable risks to consumers." That was in January 2017, 10 months before drew Wynne died. Today the ban is still pending. A spokesperson for the EPA would not confirm when it might be finalized. The companies that make methylene chloride, represented by the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, also declined to comment for this story.
One thing that's clear, though - the companies that manufacture the chemical were not happy. They pressured the EPA to delay the rule, all of which has been so frustrating for Cindy Wynne and her family. Faced with federal inaction, the Wynnes and others have taken another approach, going directly to retailers.
WYNNE: Retailers are really the ones where people come in totally unknowing and pick up the product and buy it.
HERSHER: She worked with the chemical safety advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families to pressure big chains. So far, Lowe's, Home Depot, Sherwin-Williams and a handful of others have agreed to stop selling products that contain methylene chloride and NMP by the end of the year. And a team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts announced last month that they've developed a safer alternative to methylene chloride that's equally effective. It should be available to consumers early in 2019. To Wynne, just one thing is missing, the promised federal ban.
WYNNE: That's what we're waiting for is EPA.
HERSHER: A couple weeks ago, the mothers of two other men who died of methylene chloride exposure told the EPA they'll sue if a rule isn't finalized by the end of December. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.