Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Methylene chloride

Methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane) is a manmade chemical that is a clear liquid with a faintly sweet smell. It is used as an industrial solvent and an ingredient in paint strippers, so it is often used in commercial and do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Methylene chloride dissolves into the air, so the primary way people can be exposed to it is by breathing contaminated air. Because methylene chloride-containing products, like paint strippers, are often used in indoor spaces with little ventilation, people can easily be exposed to high levels of it. Inhaling methylene chloride causes brain dysfunction – confusion, inattentiveness, dizziness, numbness in the extremities, and even death. The World Health Organization, US Department of Health and Human Services, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all consider methylene chloride to likely cause cancer. The EPA estimates that 32,000 workers and 1.3 million consumers are exposed to methylene chloride every year.

Because of the dangers of methylene chloride, consumer advocacy groups like Mind the Store spent years fighting against its use. They called on national hardware store chains to stop selling these products and for the EPA to ban use of methylene chloride. In 2019 the EPA finally banned consumer use and sales of methylene chloride-containing products, but continued to allow them to be sold in commercial sales to professionals. While this will surely protect some people from methylene chloride exposure, advocates point out that thousands of construction and home improvement workers remain unprotected by this regulation – they are unlikely to have any input into whether or not their employers buy methylene chloride-containing products, so they are unable to keep themselves safe if they want to keep their jobs. Furthermore, many of these workers are Latinx or Asian Americans who may not be given training or warnings when using methylene chloride in languages they understand. In fact, one of the workers who died from methylene chloride in 2017 and whose death galvanized the EPA to propose regulation was from El Salvador and spoke limited English. When it comes to a chemical as dangerous and deadly as methylene chloride, much more must be done to ban its use and protect the health of workers who don’t have the power to protect themselves.

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