DIY home projects and the health risks involved
The popularity and ease of DIY, or do-it-yourself, products is helping consumers find new ways to repurpose, recycle and refinish old furniture to a degree not seen in the past. But as do-it-yourselfers become more resourceful and self-reliant, many are unaware of some of the underlying health risks associated with some projects, particularly those involving paint removers, furniture strippers and other harmful chemicals.
While there are dozens of different paint and furniture strippers available for use, the most popular and commonly used contain a chemical called methylene chloride. The ingredient is extremely effective in removing paint, varnish, enamel and other coatings from everything from wood furniture to iron bathtubs, and is commonly found in products available at any home improvement store, and is the formulation of choice used by most professional refinishers and services.
Coating removers that use methylene chloride, also called dichloromethane, are inexpensive, work quickly and result in limited or no damage to the items to which they are applied. However, methylene chloride is considered a likely cancer-causing agent that can easily lead to serious injury or death when proper safety precautions aren't used.
"When used in an enclosed space, methylene chloride builds up very rapidly to a high concentration that can be lethal. It doesn't take much in a room that is small and poorly ventilated," said Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine specialist at the University of California San Francisco.
When methylene chloride enters the body, either through inhalation or through the skin, it causes a chemical reaction that increases carbon monoxide in the body. Harrison said people working with the chemical need to use appropriate ventilation, a respirator and gloves. That means using a respirator that provides fresh air from an outside room when used in enclosed rooms, and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) gloves, not simple dust masks or latex gloves found at most home improvement stores.
Methylene chloride causes cancer in laboratory animals, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission consider it to be a likely cause of cancer in humans. Because it evaporates quickly and can be inhaled quickly, exposure can come on rapidly. Initial signs of exposure may be dizziness, headache, lack of coordination, but high exposure with little or no ventilation has resulted in death in consumers and those who work with it for a living. High exposures over long periods can also cause liver and kidney damage. Because methylene chloride can change to carbon monoxide, which lowers the body's ability to carry oxygen, people with heart, lung or blood disease are at increased risk of complications.
Specific cancers linked to methylene chloride include brain cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Since 1976, more than 40 deaths have been attributed to methylene chloride when used in paint and bathtub coating removal, according to the EPA. In some cases, two or more people have died during a single job when air concentrations quickly reached lethal levels, potentially in less than 10 minutes. In other situations, individuals have died when entering rooms or facilities in which paint or coating removal was previously conducted and air concentrations of methylene chloride remained dangerously high.
"For your do-it-yourselfer, or even your small business contractor, they aren't aware that ventilation and a respirator is needed," Harrison said. "Second, there isn't adequate warning on labels. Third, most consumers don't read labels.
"Fourth, most store clerks at your typical home improvement store, if you ask them what product to use, most would recommend something that has methylene chloride in it, and they aren't aware themselves that you need that level of protection. And fifth, those stores don't sell the type of protection you need. You would have to go to an industrial supply house. With all those factors, it's a highly risky business to use methylene chloride in enclosed spaces."
The lack of education about methylene chloride isn't limited to general clerks or hobbyists, a sampling of some of the most popular do-it-yourself instructional videos available on YouTube shows many of the so-called professionals failing to warn viewers to take adequate safety precautions, or practice them themselves.
A YouTube video posted by the "ehowtochannel" that has more than 1.6 million views features a man who claims to be a professional woodworker demonstrating how to use furniture stripper on a wood table. Working in what appears to be a basement shop, the man pours a dose of paint stripper onto the table from an unlabeled can and brushes it onto the wood. At no point does he advise viewers to take any precautions, nor is he wearing any type of respirator. The majority of comments on the video were jokes and puns about the use of furniture "stripper," rather than any inquires about the product or safety.
Another video posted by "OSUCowboyRick" has more than 35,000 views. In it, the demonstrator shows viewers how he applied a paint stripper to his bathtub to remove an old enamel coating. In the video, "Cowboy Rick" simply pours a serving of Citirstrip stripping gel onto his bathtub and spread it with a paint brush. Not only does he not wear gloves or a respirator, he touts the safety of the product, saying "It's real safe and easy to use."
While the Citristrip label notes the product doesn't contain methylene chloride, it does contain N-Methyl, also called NMP or N-Methylpyrrolidone, which the EPA proposed banning, along with methylene chloride, in 2017 for all consumer coating stripper uses.
According to the EPA, NMP poses a risk to people, particularly pregnant women and women of childbearing age, who have high exposure to the chemical through paint and other coating removers. Short- and long-term risks for people who use NMP for less than four hours per day may be reduced by the use of specific chemical-resistant gloves. However, the EPA said in a 2015 risk assessment of NMP, that such protection gear may not adequately reduce risks to people who use it for more than four hours per day on a single day or repeatedly over a succession of days.
The use of coating removers, particularly methylene chloride as a bathtub stripper, is particularly risky, as more than a dozen deaths have been attributed its use in products that contain the chemical for removing coating from tubs.
A 2011 investigation by researchers at Michigan State University found the deaths of 13 workers, including three in Michigan, who were refinishing bathtubs involved the use of products containing methylene chloride. The deaths occurred between 2000 and 2011, with additional deaths occurring since then.
Kenneth Rosenman, chief of MSU's Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the College of Human Medicine, said the deaths were linked to fatalities reported to the National Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which tracks worker incidents. The number of consumer deaths related to bathtub finish strippers isn't known.
"If you decide you want to strip your tub, you're on our own if you die. There's no way to find out about that," he said. "There are ways to track people when they are working for somebody else, and there have been additional work related deaths. We aren't sure how many people have died on their own."
A 1999 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Cambridge Hospital identified methylene chloride as posing an unacceptable risk of injury or death to cabinet and factory workers.
"More than a million workers are at risk for methylene chloride exposure," the report found. "Aerosol sprays and paint stripping may also cause significant nonoccupational exposures... Methylene chloride should never be used in enclosed or poorly ventilated areas because of the well-documented dangers of loss of consciousness and death."
Because methylene chloride vapors are heavier than air, Rosenman said they likely remain in bathtubs after application, causing increased dangers to workers applying a paint-stripping product.
While methylene chloride was previously identified as a potentially fatal occupational hazard to furniture strippers and factory workers, the MSU study led to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a hazard to bathtub refinishers.
The new hazard finding stemmed from the university's work with the Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program. As part of the program, Debra Chester, an industrial hygienist, identified the 2010 death of a worker using a bathtub refinisher. In that case, the 52-year-old co-owner of a Michigan-based bathtub refinishing company was found unresponsive after using a product marketed for the aircraft industry containing methylene chloride.
The CDC said the man was in an apartment bathroom, about 5-feet by 8-feet, with an 8-foot ceiling equipped with a bathroom ventilation fan, which wasn't on at the time. The man was wearing latex gloves and no respiratory protection or additional ventilation. Investigators estimate the man used about six fluid ounces of stripper for the job, and had been exposed to the vapor for about an hour.
"The problem with methylene chloride and why it's such an issue is that it's heavier than air, and most bathrooms are small and have only a small fan or a small window, maybe," Rosenman said. "When you're stripping a bathtub, you have your head down in there. You only need a teaspoon to kill you."
Chester, Rosenman and others at the program identified two earlier deaths in Michigan and notified the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which in turn notified OSHA. The investigation revealed 10 additional bathtub refinisher fatalities linked to methylene chloride.
According to the CDC, each of the deaths occurred in residential bathrooms with inadequate ventilation. Protective equipment, including a respirator, either wasn't used or was inadequate to protect against vapor.
The CDC found 10 different products were associated with the 13 deaths, six of which were marketed for use in the aircraft industry, and the rest for use on wood, metal, glass and masonry. None of the labels mentioned bathtub refinishing. Victim ages ranged from 23 to 57.
Rosenman said injuries or deaths caused by methylene chloride and other contaminants may often go unnoticed by typical emergency room doctors. He said he often uses the death of a man who died at his home while doing woodwork in his basement as an example for his medical students. The case, he said, was the focus of an article published in 1976 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The guy, as a hobby, is stripping furniture in his basement and has a heart attack," he said. "His wife brings a container of paint stripper to the hospital and asks if it has anything to do with it."
At the time, Rosenman said, doctors either ignored the connection to the chemical or were unaware. After being discharged, the man went home and resumed his woodworking, resulting in a second heart attack, but survived. After recovering, the man again resumes his woodworking, suffering a third, fatal heart attack."
"Things don't get recognized," he said. "It's an ongoing problem."
Harrison at the University of California San Francisco agreed. While occupational medicine doctors who specialize in recognizing symptoms related to work hazards, general practitioners are not. And, while outreach and training in the medical field may help, he said methylene chloride is ripe for restrictions.
"There hasn't been much outreach for training," he said. "But that's true not just for methylene chloride, it's with many different things."
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more consumers are choosing to complete DIY projects in their homes in recent years. As such, the commission has issued a publication on the use of paint strippers, including different types of paint strippers and the risks they pose.
Solvent-based paint strippers dissolve the bond between wood and paint. Solvents also can dissolve other materials, such as latex or rubber used in common dishwashing gloves. Some solvents will burn or irritate skin, while others have more serious health impacts. It is within this group that methylene chloride-based strippers fall.
Other solvent-based strippers include acetone, toluene and methanol, which are commonly used together. These chemicals are highly flammable, and may cause other health problems, particularly to unborn children when breathed in by the mother.
As noted earlier, NMP is another solvent-based paint stripper, which may cause skin swelling, blistering and burns, which may not appear until sometime after exposure. The chemical is readily absorbed through the skin, and may cause health problems. Chemical resistant gloves, long sleeves and pants are recommended. The CPSC also advises users to wash their hands immediately after using NMP-based products, even when wearing gloves. The commission also avoids using NMP products in an enclosed area for an extended time without open doors or windows, and recommends ventilating with a fan or cross ventilation.
Dibasic esters, such as dimethyl adipate ester, dimethyl succinate ester and dimethyl glutarate ester, are also types of solvent-based strippers. While much less is known about the possible health effects of these solvents, some people have reported experiencing temporary blurred vision. They have also been shown to damage the cells lining the nose of laboratory animals.
Caustic-based strippers, which aren't flammable, react with paint coating and loosen it from the surface. One such form of caustic stripper is sodium hydroxide, or lye. Such chemicals can cause severe burns to skin or eyes, even with short contact. They are highly toxic, and can also darken or raise the wood grain when used. Many people avoid these types of strippers because of the risk they pose.
Because methylene chloride poses documented risks to users, there are already several restrictions on its use both in the United States, and in other countries. However, the majority of the chemical's uses as a coating remover remain unregulated in the United States.
Lindsay McCormick, a chemical safety expert with the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, said well documented health risks related to methylene chloride should lead the EPA to ban its use in coating removers.
"Unfortunately, the deaths have been known for quite a while, even back into the 1980s," she said. "The EPA has now focused specifically on this chemical because there is such a clear cut case. This is a case where the science is clear. It's kind of a no brainer."
In addition to its use as a coating remover, methylene chloride is used in plastic processing, metal cleaning and degreasing, adhesive manufacturing, heat transfer and even some food processing and tablet coating for pharmaceuticals. The EPA estimates more than 260 million pounds of methylene chloride are produced and imported to the United States annually. About a quarter of all of that is used for paint and coating removal products.
In 2012, the EPA identified methylene chloride as a chemical for assessment under the federal TSCA, with the agency issuing a risk assessment two years later that identified the risks posted by the chemical when used as a coating remover. In January of 2017, the EPA issued a proposed rule to regulate methylene chloride, as well as NMP, in coating removals.
Under the EPA's proposed rule, the manufacture and import, processing and distribution in commerce of methylene chloride and NMP would be prohibited for consumer use, and most types of commercial paint removal. However, the EPA said in the proposed rule that while it would seek to prohibit commercial furniture refinishing uses, it would do so at a later date. Meanwhile both methylene chloride and NMP are due for a more thorough risk assessment that would include coating removers and all other uses.
The broader review is part of a 2016 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act, known as the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which calls for full risk assessments to be conducted for 10 priority chemicals, including methylene chloride and NMP.
"That was about a year ago, but basically we've seen no movement toward finalization," McCormick said. "In December, the EPA moved (the regulatory rule) to its longterm action list, which is like putting it in the attic. We fully expect them to sit on it for a long time."
On December 14, the EPA published its semi-annual regulatory agenda that lists the status of pending proposals. The process applies to all federal agencies, with about 700 items moved to "long-term action" lists. Among those moved to long-term items was the methylene chloride/NMP rule. The long-term list means no action will be taken within a year, and no projected date or timeframe for completion.
Industry and business interests who have opposed restrictions on the chemicals claim there aren't adequate alternatives available for commercial use. They also claim the EPA's economic analysis of the proposed restrictions doesn't accurately assess the proposal. Lastly, they claim the proposed regulatory restrictions should be postponed until after a full assessment is done, as required by the Lautenberg Act.
In September of 2017, the EPA held a public workshop on the use of methylene chloride in furniture refinishing in collaboration with the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Office of Advocacy. David Rostker, with the office, said at the September meeting that the office has an obligation to represent the interest of small businesses to the executive office, Congress and the judicial branch. While it doesn't report to the president or administrator of the SBA, federal statutes require agencies to analyze alternatives to regulatory proposals in a way that minimizes the impact on small entities.
In comments to the EPA, the Office of Advocacy stated the EPA should withdraw the proposed rule and reassess the methylene chloride and NMP use in paint and coating removal as part of its ongoing risk evaluation for these chemicals.
"Advocacy suggests that the EPA take back the rule and include the analysis of these uses as part of its ongoing efforts to do risk evaluations for both methylene chloride and NMP under the amended TSCA," Advocacy said in its comments to the EPA. "Alternatively, if the agency decides to go forward based on the existing risk assessment, Advocacy suggests that EPA reassess the viability and technical feasibility of the available alternatives, reevaluate the costs to formulators, and eliminate the restriction on the container size for these chemical products. And finally, the agency should adopt the least restrictive co-proposal to allow for the use of NMP in paint and coating removal products."
The EPA's latest statement indicates the agency is reevaluating its initial risk assessment, as requested by the Office of Advocacy.
An EPA spokesperson told Downtown that the agency is evaluating the chemicals as part of the group of the first ten chemicals undergoing the initial chemical risk evaluations under the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act.
Further, the agency spokesperson said the agency will "refine the scope of our risk evaluations with problem formulations to be published in the coming months" and that the agency is "currently considering all comments received" from its proposed regulation rule published in 2016.
Despite the stall, some local furniture refinishers are expecting changes to their business.
Dave Kosdrosky, owner of Guaranteed Furniture Services in Berkley, said the change will likely impact business, but that they would adjust. While he said methylene chloride is a small component of his business, it's the most effective product.
"The government has been trying to get rid of that for years," he said. "The replacement cost is probably going to be greater and increase the cost to do stripping operations. It looks like they are still out to lunch on the timing."
Kosdrosky, who has owned and operated the business for more than 50 years, said the industry is trying to evolve and develop appropriately to take care of the situation. The change, he said, is similar to others to which they have had to adjust.
"It will eventually be banned, like a lot of other products that we have used throughout the years that have gone by the wayside," he said. "Things like this happens. Sometimes, it's to the detriment to a segment of businesses, but it's for the greater good."
Greg Morose, of the University of Massachusetts' Toxins Use Reduction Institute, told attendees at the EPA's September 12 workshop that the university had developed an alternative chemical formulation that is safer than methylene chloride and nearly as effective. The university has also filed for patents on the formulations and would seek licensing fees if a company wanted to commercialize it.
Other product manufacturers questioned the use of such a product if it were flammable, as most formulations of methylene chloride aren't flammable.
While the EPA's regulation process currently appears to be stalled as the agency restarts the assessment process, a long list of other regulations regarding methylene chloride exist at the federal and state levels, and they can be looked at as not only warnings, but caution signs to consumers.
As far back as 1987, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement explaining that it considers household products containing methylene chloride a hazardous substance and provided guidance on labeling of such products. The labels are required to state that methylene chloride vapor has caused cancer in certain laboratory animals, and must specify precautions to be taken during use by consumers.
In 1989, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned methylene chloride as an ingredient in all cosmetic products.
OSHA has also taken steps to reduce exposure of methylene chloride in occupational settings. In 1997, OSHA lowered the permissible exposure limit for methylene chloride from an eight-hour time weighted average of 500 prats per million to 25 ppm, and a 15-minute short-term exposure limit of 125 ppm.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has prohibited methylene chloride and other hazardous chemicals for use in removing lead-based paint by HUD contractors, and anyone receiving grants or engaging in the department's HOME Program, which is administered under the National Affordable Housing Act.
Several states have taken action to reduce or make the public aware of risks from methylene chloride. For instance, since 2011, a total of 11 states and the District of Columbia have prohibited its use in graffiti removal. Those states include Michigan, as well as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina and others.
The restrictions on the use for graffiti removal most likely stem from states efforts to meet Clean Air Act emissions rules, rather than worker or consumer protections. Under the act, methylene chloride is designated as a hazardous air pollutant. Amendments to the act led to the chemical also being banned for use as a foam-blowing agent and some other uses.
Under the federal Solid Waste Disposal Act, methylene chloride is listed as a hazardous waste. It's also listed on the national Toxic Release Inventory as part the Emergency Planning and Community-Right-to-Know Act.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water, with a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for methylene chloride and an enforceable level of .005 mgL, or 5 parts per billion.
Some states have recognized its potential toxicity. In Alaska, methylene chloride is listed as a carcinogenic hazardous substance. In Minnesota, it has been found that it may negatively affect the nervous system and cause cancer. In Washington, it's listed as a human carcinogen and chemical of high concern to children. In Pennsylvania, it's listed as an environmental and special hazardous substance.
Methylene chloride was banned in 2010 in the European Union, meaning it was no longer permitted for placement on the market for consumers or professionals after December of 2011; and no longer allowed to be used by professionals after June 2012. The ban allows EU member states to use methylene chloride if they have a program to license and train professionals in awareness, evaluation and management of risks; use of adequate ventilation and appropriate protective equipment.
In November or 2017, the state of California's Department of Toxic Substances Control proposed new regulations to name methylene chloride as a "priority product," which could lead to it being restricted or banned in that state.
The action in California came as the EPA is in the midst of two regulatory actions regarding methylene chloride and NMP, including a proposed rule that would ban the use of methylene chloride in coating remover available to the public.
With additional federal restrictions apparently on hold, it's possible for local governments to look into placing restrictions in their own communities. MSU's Rosenman said such varying local ordinances may spur product manufacturers to push for a rule to be finalized at the federal level.
"What would stop a local community saying this stuff is dangerous? Say, a township says we don't want it sold in our township. Local health departments have a lot of regulatory oversight," he said. "I would be happy to support them as an expert whenever they got challenged."