• Kevin Elliott

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.