US lags behind EU in regulating lethal solvent

A barrel once containing methylene chloride now serves as the base for a street light in Hong Kong. (Georgia/Flickr)
A barrel once containing methylene chloride now serves as the base for a street light in Hong Kong. (Georgia/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | September 30, 2015

A recent investigative story by the Center for Public Integrity analyzes a lethal solvent found in various industrial products and how the United States has been slow to take regulatory measures to ban the chemical.

The article points out that accidental exposure to methylene chloride has led to at least 56 deaths since 1980. Methylene chloride is common in products such as paint strippers, degreasers, and carpet cleaners. Fatal exposures to the chemical date back to the 1940s. Around that same time researchers at Iowa State University were studying methylene chloride as a way to extract oil from soybeans.

Roughly three decades later, two medical researchers at the University of Wisconsin wrote a report outlining the dangers of the chemical and the criticizing various agencies for not taking action against it. The authors wrote: “The legal responsibility for protecting the public currently rests with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It has remained mute, as did the governmental agency originally responsible, the Environmental Protection Agency, when in 1971 the CH2C12 hazard was formally called to its attention.”

The article also points out industry leaders have lobbied against regulations on the chemical and have advocated for its industrial effectiveness.

Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade group that includes methylene chloride manufacturers, said the way to stop the string of deaths is simple: “Proper use of the product.” Labels on the cans warn against using in areas that aren’t well ventilated.

Among those fatalities included in the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis is Traci Sheibal who in 2012 died using the solvent to clean a bathtub while working in Council Bluffs.

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