Methylene chloride, a chemical used mostly as a paint stripper, has been tied to over 50 deaths since the 1980s. If used without enough ventilation, the chemical can replace the oxygen in the lungs and suffocate the user.
Yet long after the chemical was known to be unsafe, companies kept selling it. Moreover, the EPA also declined to ban it. Now, after public pressure, at least 13 retailers have said they will stop selling products containing methylene chloride. And, in 2017, the EPA concluded that methylene chloride posed an “unreasonable risk” and began the process of banning it completely.
That complete ban never took place. In mid-March, the EPA announced its final rule, which bans methylene chloride products for household use but not for commercial use. A proposal is under consideration, however, to develop a training and certification program for workers who use the substance commercially.
Under the new ban, retailers have 180 days to pull the products from their shelves. After that, violators could face fines or even criminal prosecution. An EPA spokesperson said that they agency expects compliance to go more quickly than that, thanks to the retailers who have voluntarily stopped selling methylene chloride products.
Some advocates call the final ban a step in the right direction. Others were less positive. A spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund pointed out that the majority of methylene chloride deaths have involved commercial use.
In response to the concerns, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, an industry group, said it would work with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to improve the product’s labeling.
Reaction of the survivors
One man died from methylene chloride exposure in 2017 while he was stripping paint from the floor of his South Carolina coffee company. Another man died at age 21 while refinishing a bathtub for work. Their family members met with the EPA last year and hoped for a more complete ban.
“I am deeply disappointed that the E.P.A. has watered down the ban on methylene chloride as it was originally proposed,” one relative told the New York Times. “Workers like my son Kevin who use MC are left unprotected.”
Are companies safe from liability since the EPA continues to allow commercial use?
Not necessarily. Under the law of product liability, manufacturers, distributers and retailers can be held strictly liable whenever their products harm people after an expected use. The fact that methylene chloride remains legal for commercial use constitutes important evidence about its safety, but it is unlikely the courts would reject liability based on that alone.
The tragedy is that people will continue to be harmed or killed by methylene chloride as long as it remains on the market.