After EPA delay, group petitions Lowe’s to ban paint strippers

Martha Quillin
The News & Observer (raleigh, N.c.)

Environmental groups and the family of a man who died last year from exposure to fumes from an off-the-shelf paint stripper are petitioning Lowe’s Home Improvement stores to stop selling products containing a chemical compound blamed for at least 56 deaths since 1980.

North Carolina-based Lowe’s is one of many home improvement and hardware retailers that sell the strippers, made under several labels by a company in Tennessee. The family of a South Carolina man who died last October from exposure to the chemical has said he bought the stripper he used at Lowe’s.

What is it?

The compound is methylene chloride, also called dichloromethane, and it’s an active ingredient in several Klean Strip, Goof Off and Jasco products, all made by W.M. Barr in Memphis, Tennessee.

Is it dangerous?

W.M. Barr has argued in lawsuits that products containing the compound are safe if used as directed and, because methylene chloride alone is not flammable, strippers that contain it are safer than some other stripping compounds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found short-term exposures to the compound can be toxic to the central nervous system, and long-term exposures can cause liver toxicity, liver cancer and lung cancer.

Some people exposed to methylene chloride in enclosed spaces have been overcome and collapsed within seconds or minutes.

Why are consumers allowed to buy it?

In January 2017, the EPA proposed a ban on methylene chloride (along with two other common compounds), but announced last December that it was postponing any action indefinitely. The agency cited a a goal of “protecting both public health and the environment while curbing unnecessary regulatory burdens that stifle economic growth.”

The manufacturer has said that if consumers follow label instructions and heed warnings, the products are safe to use.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found in 2015 that at least 56 people had died from exposure to methylene chloride.

Why are groups petitioning Lowe’s Home Improvement?

The strippers are widely sold, including by Home Depot and other chains. In October, Drew Wynne, 31, of Charleston, South Carolina, died while stripping the floor of a walk-in refrigerator with Goof Off, which he had bought at Lowe’s.

Rachel Estes, climate and energy policy manager for the N.C. Conservation Network in Raleigh, said that group is petitioning Lowe’s because it’s a North Carolina company and it has been willing in the past to remove products containing toxic chemicals.

“If the federal government is not going to lead, then we need to make sure that the industry will,” she said.

What do the petitions ask?

Petitions on and by the N.C. Conservation Network ask Lowe’s to stop selling strippers containing methylene chloride. The petitions, launched earlier this month, have more than 61,000 signatures.

What does Lowe’s say?

In a statement, the Mooresville-based company said, “Lowe’s cares deeply about the health and safety of the customers we serve, and we are actively working with our product suppliers to bring new alternatives to consumers and lead change in the industry. We are committed to nearly doubling the number of Methylene Chloride alternatives available by the end of 2018, bringing a total of seven alternatives to all Lowe’s stores nationwide.

“Additionally, we continue to work with our vendors to encourage improved labeling on packaging to better communicate the proper use of these chemicals, while also highlighting the benefits of alternative products. Also, currently hosts safety guides and instructions for the proper use of Methylene Chloride.

“We continue to comply with all state and federal regulations, including those issued by regulatory agencies like the EPA and CPSC.”

Are there other ways to strip paint?

Products containing methylene chloride can strip multiple layers of paint and varnish in as little as 15 minutes. Other chemical strippers take longer and some come with their own risks, including higher flammability.

Heat guns, which melt paint so it can be scraped off, are an alternative to chemical strippers. This process releases some fumes as the old paint softens.

Sanding is the slowest method, and even that generates particulates; workers should wear dust masks to prevent inhalation.