Why is common paint stripper chemical linked to deaths still on shelves?

CBS News 3 months ago

A proposed federal ban on a potentially deadly chemical found in common paint strippers may be on hold indefinitely. The EPA says methylene chloride poses an unreasonable risk and the chemical has been implicated in dozens of deaths. The agency proposed a ban in January 2017, but postponed it late last year.

CBS News' Anna Werner spoke to the family of someone who lost his life in an accident similar to the ones we've heard before: a young man using a paint stripping product, being overcome by toxic fumes and dying.

"The pain runs deep. Not only for me but for my husband and my other two sons," Cindy Wynne said. 

Her 31-year old son Drew was the youngest of her three sons, an entrepreneur with a cold brew coffee business in Charleston, South Carolina. In October, he was resurfacing the floor of a walk-in refrigerator using a paint stripper, Goof Off, manufactured by company W.M. Barr. That's where his business partner found him then called his brother Clayton. 

Drew Wynne

"He said, 'He's gone. He's gone.' He screamed that over and over again. That's a phone call I'll never forget," Clayton said.
 
The death certificate said he was overcome by chemicals in the paint stripper – chiefly, highly-toxic methylene chloride. It's deadly but found in stripping products on store shelves across the country, something Drew's brother Brian quickly learned.

"I was shocked. I mean, how is it that you can find something that will kill you instantly and buy it, just off the shelf?" Brian said.

It's the question we discovered another family had asked some 20 years ago. Twenty-four-year-old Brian Keller had been stripping paint off a car, using another methylene chloride-based product, Klean Strip Aircraft Paint Remover, also made by W.M. Barr, that he'd bought at a local auto body shop. Then, he fell ill.

Medical records show inhaling methylene chloride vapors led to Keller having a heart attack. He survived in a weakened state for five years, until his mother Judy says he had another heart attack. 

Label of a product containing methylene chloride. 

Before his death, Keller sued manufacturer W.M. Barr. The company denied responsibility in court filings, saying Klean Strip's label warned the product was "for use by professional, trained personnel using proper equipment and is not intended for sale to, or use by, the general public". W.M. Barr later settled the case for $1.75 million without admitting liability.

"I really thought that this was a problem that was behind us," Keller's family's attorney said. "And when I learned about the accident with the same manufacturer 28 years later, I was shocked."

Not only that, but we found Klean Strip Aircraft Paint Remover advertised for sale to the public by numerous retailers, including Amazon.

"I feel sorry because more parents out there going through the same thing. This is just, shouldn't be, today's society, when they know, that they know, that they know, what this is doing. I don't get it," said Judy Steiner, Keller's mother.  
 
The company declined to do an on-camera interview but sent statements, saying "when used as directed methylene chloride paint strippers have an excellent safety record". However, they said "while we have always had a warning on our label, the recent tragedies have motivated us to ask what more we can do."

Brian Wynne

W.M. Barr says it worked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission on recently-issued guidelines "to develop a new label and warning symbol that are now prominently featured on the front panels of our methylene chloride products."
 
When the EPA moved last year to ban the products, it said "revised labeling" wasn't enough and that it "will not address the unreasonable risk presented by methylene chloride"-- something Drew Wynne's brother Brian couldn't agree with more.

"My brother didn't need to die," he said.

W.M. Barr is not the only manufacturer of paint stripping products, but it identifies itself as the largest. These products are already banned in Europe and the Wynnes aren't waiting for EPA action; they're launching a Change.org petition to pressure retailers to take methylene chloride-based products off store shelves.

You can read W.M. Barr's full statements below:


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