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Researchers identify more worker deaths linked to paint-stripping chemical

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Photo: California Department of Public Health

San Francisco — Worker deaths caused by exposure to methylene chloride are on the rise, according to researchers from OSHA and the University of California, San Francisco, who identified 32 deaths on top of those the Environmental Protection Agency had recently reported over a period spanning nearly four decades.

Methylene chloride is a solvent widely used in paint strippers, cleaners, adhesives and sealants. Analyzing 1980-2018 data from inspection reports, autopsy reports and medical records, as well as other resources, the researchers categorized cases either as consumer cases occurring in the home or those that happened on the job. Of the 85 deaths linked to the chemical, 87% were considered work-related. Previously, EPA had connected 53 deaths to the solvent.

The analysis also reveals that since 2000, work-related deaths related to paint stripping and bathroom construction projects, which includes bathtub refinishing, have increased. In 2013, OSHA and NIOSH released a hazard alert aimed at bathtub refinishers.

In 2014, EPA found that methylene chloride may cause cancer, harm to the central nervous system and toxicity to the liver, among other adverse health effects. Three years later, the agency proposed a rule banning nearly all methylene chloride stripper products for occupational and consumer use. However, with EPA under new leadership, the agency in 2019 limited the ban to consumer products but allowed continued use in commercial settings.

 

In a UCSF press release, the researchers suggest fragmented public health reporting may be the reason for EPA’s lower figure and call on the agency to limit future use of the chemical.

“It is unacceptable that these workers died simply because they were doing their job,” lead study author Annie Hoang, a researcher fellow at UCSF, said in the release. “I hope the EPA will do its job to protect our workers and save lives.”

Hoang and her colleagues also urge EPA not to rely on label warnings and personal protective equipment for protection, but instead emphasize the use of safer substitutes.

The study was published online in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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