Methylene Chloride Proposed Ban: Misguided Policy - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Methylene Chloride Proposed Ban: Misguided Policy

 In Flexner On Finishing, Flexner on Finishing Blog

If a stripper contains methylene chloride, it will be listed on the can.

Am I the only person who thinks the EPA’s proposed ban on methylene chloride
in paint strippers is a big and unnecessary overstep by government? Ever
since the EPA announced on May 10, 2018, that it plans to go ahead with plans
to finalize a ruling doing this, I’ve seen a lot of reporting, but nowhere
have I seen any objection to this ban.

I wrote about this issue in the June 2017 issue of Popular Woodworking
(#232), and I recommend this article to you if you would like to read more
of my objection. In this article, I told how the EPA has been trying to ban
methylene chloride for over three decades. Until recently, the main argument
has been that it causes cancer. The problem with this argument is that all
the evidence indicates otherwise. So it appears that now the argument has
been expanded to include how many deaths the solvent has caused due to acute

Acute exposure is a problem because methylene chloride metabolizes to carbon
monoxide in the bloodstream, replacing oxygen. This can lead to a heart
attack, especially in people with a pre-existing heart condition.

The number of deaths reported is between 40 and 50 since 1975 or 1980
depending on the source. That’s less than 2 a year. Say that again, less
than two a year!

The primary way this seems to happen is with people who strip wood and other
materials in a bathtub in a closed room with no air circulation. The closed
room is a problem, of course, but in addition, the person is probably leaning
into the tub to scrub off the paint or finish. Because methylene chloride is
heavier than air the buildup of fumes inside the tub would exacerbate the
lethality. Also, because the methylene-chloride molecule is so small, most
vapor masks are ineffective at blocking it.

I don’t want to be accused of minimizing anyone’s death, but are two a year
enough to justify removing this extremely effective solvent from the
marketplace? Strippers based on methylene chloride are by far the fastest
acting and strongest we have available, and their substitutes all have
problems. The question about banning any product always comes down to
weighing the benefits against the harmful effects. I don’t think these
harmful effects justify the ban in this case.

And I don’t see any reason why manufacturers couldn’t be required to put
much better warnings on the cans. The stripper could even be kept in locked
cabinets, which require a store clerk to open along with explaining to
customers that air movement into and out of the stripping area is vital.

While researching on the Internet, I came across this CBS morning show
report from last December, which I found not only misleading but also over
the top in hyperbole. The people discussing the issue tried repeatedly to
outdo each other in their horror that methylene chloride was still available
to the public.

Notice about two minutes into the accompanying video that there’s a bathtub
example showing the fumes rising out of the tub, demonstrating a complete
lack of understanding of the solvent. It’s heavier than air, so it sinks and
accumulates, especially in the confines of a bathtub.

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Showing 14 comments
  • toxcrusadr

    ATSDR is the definitive place for all things toxicological. I’ll warn you this is a long and technical document but it collects and analyzes many many studies from different researchers over a long time period. This is the stuff that EPA and others use to assess toxicity.

    I haven’t read the whole thing but I recommend Ch. 2, Health Effects. There are most certainly complaints of central nervous system effects from people using it occupationally. As for cancer, about 1000 ppm in air seems to be an issue. But from what I know about cancer studies, one has to be exposed for a long time (i.e. occupationally) for significant risk. The occasional user is at much less risk.

    I happen to like the gel MC stripper for old finishes, agree with other posters on that. It’s about the only thing that touches them.

  • CrazyDave

    Well Bob. It has taken me a while to get to the point where I can post a comment on this topic. Rather than rant about our government “helping us” again and the evils of bureaucracy, just let me add a few constructive thoughts.
    The methylene chloride strippers are very useful stuff. Especially if you are dealing with old (1930’s, 40’s 50′ etc.) enamel finishes that are really hard and have been applied properly. I’d rather work with a chemical stripper using common sense and proper procedures than spraying around a lot of dust from sanding operations and risking damage with a slip-up. Where they are really useful is with painted metal parts. You wanna’ strip paint from cast brass, formed metal or other intricate parts using a wire brush or other method and risk defacing them? Of course, many will tell you that there are “safer” alternatives that are “just as good”. Having tried many and always having gone back to methylene chloride, I’ll say not so much.
    It has been mentioned that the ban is for methylene chloride in paint strippers and it will be available from chemical supply houses. However, that won’t be the nice, gelled stuff like the packaged strippers but a hard to handle and apply liquid. Sidetrack: I have a sister-in-law that had an antiques business for many years and she had a concrete tank in her work area that probably held 50 to 100 gallons of liquid methylene chloride that she dipped furniture and other pieces into to strip. Now that was risky!
    Anyway, thanks for the useful warning, I think I’ll get to the home store this week and stick a few gallons of the good stuff in my paint locker. Right next to the cabinet where I store my stash of 100 Watt (banned) light bulbs.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, I can accept the MSDS isn’t the tell-all, but what source would you recommend then? Where can I get facts about how safe/dangerous this stuff really is? What precautions should I take?

    So far, the MSDS is the best I have found. In the end, I want some way to know what precautions I should take, and what kind of damage it might cause if I don’t take those precautions. I can handle minor things like skin irritation, but if it does something more serious I would probably like to avoid it.

    • Longfatty

      1. DO NOT use it in a bathtub. Wear goggles. Read all hazards that came with the product, on the can, internet or paper that came with it.
      2. Best practice is never work alone, especially if you are uncertain about a hazard.
      3. You can be poisoned even if you don’t smell it. If you can smell it your exposure is way too high and you need to change something. Either move to another area as soon as you can, or get a respirator that is approved for the chemicals you are using. If you get dizzy, feel tingly or suddenly feel cozy warm you’re in trouble and need to move (don’t ask how I know that feeling).
      4. You need special gloves. The ones you have will not work with methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane) for long. Skin exposure is a smaller problem than breathing vapor, just keep in mind that if it gets on your gloves it’s probably going to seep through to your hands in less than a minute. At this point you may also be breathing too much.
      5. Unless you have a shop with a strong exhaust fan and can feel a draft you should use it outside. If you are outside you are probably ok, just make sure the fumes aren’t blowing into your house and you are upwind.

  • IrritableBadger

    I wonder how many people who use products containing methylene chloride occupationally submitted comments to the EPA last year when the public comment period was open? I’m not hearing anything but crickets… Did anybody but me go to the hearings? Hello?

    Saying nothing when you have the opportunity is not a good tactic for combatting private lobbying organizations like the National COSH (National Center for Occupational Safety and Health) who put Lowe’s on the 2018 edition of their annual Dirty Dozen list of dangerous employers. Because Lowe’s sells products containing methylene chloride they put the onus of all 56 US deaths on them. (It’s worth noting they also put Applebee’s and Amazon on the list of the most dangerous companies, so they’ve got weird value systems).

    But it doesn’t matter that COHS and National COHS are private organizations, famously skewed and really big fans of extortion, their Dirty Dozen lists are designed specifically to fill the “we need a few more column inches for the news for today” all editors deal with. That’s all they do and their lists go global in hours.

    National COHS also sells their services to companies trying to get into a market and not having much luck. In this case the citrus and soy based stripping product sector that are paying big bucks for lobbying support.

    That’s an uphill fight to begin with, but it’s a non-starter when those affected don’t even get involved. This article is a year too late. It’s done and there’s nothing that’s going to change it now. The ship has sailed and next time you’ve got to refinish the decks you’re going to be doing it with soy based stripper that requires a brutal amount of scrubbing with a wire brush to make it work. The carvings on your antique furniture are simply doomed. Just set the piece on fire. It’ll look better.

    So thanks for nothing. If you don’t want to see stuff like this keep happening you’ve got to stay up to date on the issues. Durability + Design has good coverage of legislative and regulatory issues. EHSToday is another good source.

    • Bob Flexner
      Bob Flexner

      I’m not exactly sure who you’re addressing here. I can’t imagine that the manufacturers of methylene-chloride containing strippers and their lobbying organization, Halogenated Solvents Industrry Alliance (HSIA), didn’t make their opposition to this rule known. As for my being tardy, if this is your meaning, I addressed this issue in Popular Woodworking in my June, 2017 column. This issue would have appeared in May, and I would have submitted the article in January, when I first read that the EPA was moving ahead with the ban. And this was the umpteenth time I addressed the methylene-chloride issue. I do what I can. Thanks for the information about Lowes.

      • Bob Flexner
        Bob Flexner

        Lowes has announced that it is phasing out selling strippers containing methylene chloride and n-methyl pyrrolidone. A real shame. But I guess they will continue to sell highly flammable strippers and strippers that don’t work well on higher performance coatings.

  • Bob Flexner
    Bob Flexner

    Jim, 1) life involves risks; we can’t eliminate all of them, and 2) no, there aren’t other less lethal, equally effective substitutes. All are slower and less effective, with other problems including being flammable and polluting, being unhealthy in other ways, and containing a high amount of water, which is bad for wood and glue joints, especially veneer. Consider the goal in formulating paints and finishes, which is to make them increasingly resistant to being damaged by anything.
    Thinking about your objection made me remember a situation that happened to one of my customers. They had hired a painter to strip paint from woodwork and paneling. The painter wanted to avoid using methylene chloride, so he used a flammable stripper instead, of which there are many brands. He flipped on a light switch, which sparked and started a fire, destroying half the house.
    Life is full of risks. What we need is better labeling.

    • Anonymous

      To be clear, they are not banning methylene chloride completely. They are only banning it from commercial products sold for paint and coating removal. My source for this is Q5 about the rule process:

      Those who are knowledgeable about the chemical and still want it, should still be able to buy it from a chemistry store or the manufacturer. I doubt better labeling will have much effect on education, but the extra steps required to buy a special chemical does make one think a bit more about the chemical. Isn’t that a form of your suggested “locked cabinets, which require a store clerk to open”?

      By the way, when you do purchase it, I hope you make sure to pick up some special gloves. From the same website above, the following is mentioned: “However, many other types of gloves are not recommended for use with methylene chloride including latex, nitrile, neoprene, polyethylene, and butyl rubber.” I believe that covers most gloves a woodworker would commonly have.

  • Longfatty

    Thank you for continuing the discussion on this topic. A complete ban on an effective product does seem extreme and I am with you on this, there must be better options short of taking it off the market. Using these strippers in a bathtub is stupid. Nevertheless, think you are understating the risks of working with methylene chloride.

    This solvent is judged to be dangerous at levels below what a person can smell. This means that it is relatively easy to be in a dangerous or lethal situation without realizing it. Second, exposure depresses the central nervous system which can quickly impair judgement, preventing a person from moving to a safe area when they are exposed. You get dizzy, your mind gets fuzzy, you pass out.

    Some of the most dangerous chemicals are ones that can injure a person without adequate warning. This is why a stinky chemical is added to natural gas and propane, you want to know if a dangerous situation is developing before a spark makes the gas explode. You might not get adequate warning with Methylene chloride strippers.

  • jim

    Bob, 1) the families of those two who die per year, would beg to differ with your assessment, and 2) surely there are other less lethal, equally effective substitutes for methylene chloride based paint strippers.

  • Anonymous

    I have to say that before your article, I knew nothing about methylene chloride. I gather from your first article (and this one) that you are quite emotional about the subject. That is okay, but I find it hard to read past the emotion to get the facts. So I did my own research and came across the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) via a link on Wikipedia:

    It is consistent with what you say, and adds more. From what I see, the potential health effects appear more significant than what I understood from your writing. Based on the MSDS, methylene chloride earns a “severe” health rating (3/4).

    What I don’t know is how the replacements compare. What are the chemicals? Are they significantly safer or similar level of safety? If the replacements are similar or worse level of safety, the I definitely agree with your conclusions about the decision being unreasonable. If the replacements are safer, then I’d say the validity of the decision is a personal judgement. The fact methylene chloride does kill about 2 people a year is a serious consideration. In the end though, everyone has their own opinion on where to draw the line between safety and convenience.

    • Christopher Hawkins

      As a Ph.D. organic chemist with almost 40 years experience, MSDSs are not the best measure to assess the danger of a chemical. Many of them seem to be written by lawyers with the goal of reducing successful litigation. Unfortunately, the most reliable source of information is an experienced chemist who is reading MSDSs from a couple of different manufacturers. He/she can help you separate real danger vs. hyperbole.

      • flyfisher111

        I must agree with your comment; SDS’s are just about useless if you desire anything but the most basic information, liberally saturated with legal weasel words. If you want a chuckle, check out the one for sand.

        As for the alternatives, you can just about count on a headache when using that citrus stuff that smells so great, thanks to the d-limonene. Strange, how folks associate disagreeable odors with toxicity – smells good, can’t be a problem, right?

        I just looked on Amazon for dichloromethane and found a gallon for $61.99. When we get moved next month and my shop stuff unloaded, I will order a gallon to keep on hand, similar to the gallon of 30% hydrogen peroxide I keep. (BTW, just this afternoon I made a liter of glass cleaner’ 5% 2-butoxyethanol, 10% ethanol and 88% water; it works better than any commonly available commercial glass cleaner. I was given a can of proprietary glass cleaner by the company that replaced a bunch of widows in our home, it worked better than Windex, with no streaks. Took it to work and handed it to my head analytical chemist and told him to tell me what was in it, turned out to be very simple stuff. $20 for 500ml of the butyl, so I can make gallons – and will need it at the new house!)

        Most people who have problems do so because they did something stupid, and remember, even duct tape won’t fix stupid. I recall years ago when the CPSC announced they were going to regulate diving boards. They had a formula that assigned points to products depending on the severity of the injury, the age of the victim (very young and old need more protection), etc. When the annual point count reached some level, their regulatory process triggered. That year, there were 2 deaths, causing doubling or tripling the score; both happened to elderly males, again doubling the score. It wasn’t until someone with a bit of common sense looked at the reports and found that both incidents happened to older fellows who went off the boards into EMPTY swimming pools. One was drunk and the other was out for a midnight swim in the dark. That’s how some of this craziness begins.

        I have worked with chemicals most of my life and I am 74. I have never had a problem, mostly because I follow the rather simple rules. I ignore the the chemoscare de jour and try to place things into perspective for those who ask. I recently stripped a kitchen island whose finish resisted all but the most aggressive remover I could find, and even then took a day and a half and several trips to HD, Lowes and Ace Hardware and about $60 to get the job done. Sans the methylene chloride, I would still be sitting on that stool cursing.

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