The Pump Handle is on a holiday break. The following, which was originally published on March 9, is one of our favorite posts from 2016.
by Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) continues to make the case that consumers and contractors should stay away from paint strippers that contain methylene chloride. The CDPH’s latest effort is a 7-minute video released last week by the agency's Occupational Health Branch. It features a painter named Jason who nearly died while working with a methylene chloride-based paint stripper. He and two co-workers were removing paint from inside the cabin of a yacht. He explains:
“I became dizzy, light headed, the world was spinning. Next thing I know, I looked over… and one guy was completely unconscious."
After that he just remembers being revived on the shore.
"I absolutely believe we could have died out there. I think it is amazing that we are still here."
When methylene chloride (a.k.a. dichloromethane) is inhaled or absorbed through the skin it is metabolized into carbon monoxide (CO). Death from CO poisoning could have been the fate of Jason and his co-workers.
The CDPH's Occupational Health Branch has investigated several fatal incidents involving methylene chloride (here, here), as have other occupational health investigators (here.) It wasn’t too long ago that an issue of the MMWR summarized 13 of these cases. That report focused exclusively on workers who were refinishing bath tubs and died from acute methylene chloride exposure. I can add to that list the death of Jeffrey Lewis, 20. He died in December 2014 while refinishing a bath tub in an apartment in Manhattan, NYC.
The CDPH's video is the latest in the Occupational Health Branch's growing collection of digital stories. Jason the painter narrates a re-enactment of his close call. The video also features Robert Dufort. He's the founder of Magic Brush. a painting contractor based in San Francisco. Dufort says:
"Back in the day, principally we used methylene chloride-based strippers because that was all there was available at the time. …We really never realized the inherent dangers. …[There was] a growing, knowing sense that this was not really a material that we wanted to use.”
Regrettably, methylene chloride-based paint strippers are still pretty much what you'll find on store shelves. And the warning on the front of the container sure doesn't cut it. Here's what it says:
DANGER! POISON. May be fatal or cause blindness if swallowed. Eye and skin irritant. Vapor harmful.
Skin irritant? Vapor harmful? What about "Fumes can kill users in minutes!"
Hats off the the CDPH's Occupational Health Branch for mentioning in the video the utter inadequacy of the warning labels on these products. The narrator is frank:
"The labels mention cancer risk but do not make it clear the possibility of rapid death."
In the paint aisle at my town's big box hardware stores, I found products such as Jasco Premium Paint Remover (60-100% methylene chloride) and Klean-Strip Strip X Stripper (30-40% methylene chloride). I was hard pressed to find a product that didn't contain methylene chloride or NMP (n-methylpyrrolidone) which is not a safer alternative. NMP causes acute and long-term effects on the central nervous system as well as a potential human reproductive toxin.
Telling Jason's story of nearly losing his life from a deadly paint stripper does not in itself "make the case." Contractors and consumers need to know what's the alternative. The video does that well with recommendations for better options. And for those who need a refresher when they are browsing the paint aisle, the CDPH develop a mobile app guide for choosing a safer alternative paint strippers.
As Robert Dufort says in the video, using a methylene chloride-free paint stripper is a "no brainer."
When stripping a small object, anything that you can hold in your hand, I suppose you could do it in front of a window with a fan facing outside, sucking the fumes out and away from you. To prevent wind eddies that might put the fumes right in your face, sit sideways relative to the fan, so the air movement is across from one arm to the other. That or outdoor in a decent breeze.