April 29, 2021

Researchers Urge Focus on Elimination, Substitution to Prevent Methylene Chloride-Related Fatalities

An assessment published on April 19 in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that methylene chloride-related fatalities continue to occur in the United States even with regulations and policies in place to address product labeling and worker protections. The assessment set out to identify and analyze deaths related to exposures to methylene chloride or products containing methylene chloride during 1980–2018. Researchers identified 85 methylene chloride-related fatalities during this period and found that most deaths occurred in occupational settings and involved paint-stripping products. Methylene chloride—a solvent used in paint strippers, cleaners, degreasers, adhesives, and sealants—has been linked to cancer, but it can also cause sudden death or asphyxiation. The newly published paper argues that policies intended to prevent deaths associated with methylene chloride exposure should focus on eliminating the hazard and emphasizing safer substitutes instead of continuing to rely on hazard communication and personal protective equipment to protect workers and consumers.

Seventy-four (or 87 percent) of the fatalities identified during 1980–2018 occurred among workers, and researchers found that OSHA investigated 55 of those deaths. Researchers identified multiple fatalities in four work-related incidents. Eleven of the total deaths occurred among consumers. Researchers were able to find information on PPE use for 40 of the 85 total fatalities. Among 36 occupational cases with PPE information available, a respirator was not used in 20 cases, while adequate respiratory protection, such as a NIOSH-approved supplied-air respirator, was not used in 16 cases. In two consumer cases with information on PPE use, a respirator was not used, and the respirators used in an additional two cases among consumers were inadequate.

The JAMA Internal Medicine paper highlights “significant changes in the circumstances surrounding occupational deaths” over time, including increases in the proportion of worker fatalities related to paint strippers and the proportion of deaths among workers occurring in bathrooms compared to other settings. For example, researchers found that 17 of the 18 worker deaths identified after 2000 were related to bathrooms and that most of them involved bathtub refinishing. The paper notes that fatalities related to methylene chloride “are likely undercounted in the U.S. owing to the fragmented nature of the public health reporting system” and that no reporting requirement exists for methylene chloride-related fatalities among consumers. Occupational fatalities may also be underreported because not all workers are covered by OSHA, the authors explain.

OSHA’s permissible exposure limit for methylene chloride is 25 parts of methylene chloride per million parts of air as an 8-hour time-weighted average, and its action level is 12.5 ppm. The PEL was lowered to 25 ppm from 500 ppm in 1997. In a regulatory review of its methylene chloride standard published in 2010 (PDF), OSHA found that the standard “[remained] justified and necessary in light of ongoing hazards and fatalities” and that it should continue with no changes.

In 2013, OSHA and NIOSH issued a joint hazard alert warning employers and others of the hazards of methylene chloride-based stripping agents, and in 2016 a “Fatal Facts” document (PDF) published by OSHA describes an incident in which a temporary worker died while removing the coating from a bathtub in a residential building using paint remover containing 85–90 percent methylene chloride.

A policy statement published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1987 addresses the labeling of certain products containing methylene chloride to warn users of the cancer risk from inhaling methylene chloride vapor. A CPSC rule published in 2018 is intended to update the 1987 policy statement and provide labeling guidance to warn users of acute hazards associated with paint strippers containing methylene chloride.

A final rule issued by EPA in 2019 bans the sale and distribution of paint-removal products containing methylene chloride for consumer use. The agency’s regulations also prohibit the manufacture and processing of methylene chloride for consumer paint and coating removal. The rule does not address commercial uses of methylene chloride. Since commercial users of methylene chloride for paint and coating removal can obtain such products through other distribution networks, the authors of the paper stress that “the potential for occupational fatalities remains a major concern.” According to the researchers’ assessment, workers in the construction industry, particularly those working in bathrooms, are at the greatest risk. EPA said in 2019 that it would solicit input on a future rulemaking that could establish a training, certification, and limited-access program for methylene chloride for commercial uses.

For more information, see the paper published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Related:By the Numbers” in the November 2015 Synergist focused on an investigative report of fatal incidents related to the use of paint-stripping products containing methylene chloride.