UPDATE, Tuesday, June 19th: Home Depot, announced it will phase out the use of the toxic chemicals methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) in its paint removal products by the end of this year.
UPDATE, Tuesday, May 29th: Today Lowe’s announced that it would stop selling paint removal products that contain the chemicals methylene chloride and NMP by the end of this year.
Lauren Atkins says her 31-year old son Joshua was the picture of health.
“He ate organic foods,” she says. ”He always stretched and did yoga, exercises, and was very outdoorsy.”
LISTEN: “Mother Works to Ban the Chemical that Killed Her Son”
Joshua was a snowboarder, a climber, and most of all, he loved freestyle BMX biking. His mom says after he discovered BMX in second grade, the bike became like his third leg.
But in February, Joshua Atkins was visiting his mother in South Connellsville, Fayette County, and died suddenly. He had been removing paint from his BMX bike with a chemical paint stripper. Lauren Atkins found him after she came home from working a late shift.
“I went upstairs and I thought he had just fallen asleep, working on his bike,” she recalls. “But he wasn’t asleep. He’d been gone for several hours.”
A toxicology report revealed her only son died from inhaling methylene chloride fumes. The chemical is an ingredient in paint strippers sold at hardware stores, and is also used commercially. According to data compiled by the group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, methylene chloride has been linked to at least 64 deaths since 1980.
MAP: U.S. Deaths from Methylene Chloride
At least 64 people have died from acute exposure to methylene chloride since 1980. The following map shows the location of those fatalities. Click on a marker to read the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Congress amended the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, allowing EPA to restrict chemicals like methylene chloride. And under the Obama administration, EPA did go ahead and propose a ban on the chemical’s use in paint strippers, but the proposal was put on hold last December by the agency.
Beth Kemler with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families says things changed a couple of weeks ago when a delegation of people whose family members had died from methylene chloride inhalation met with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in Washington.
“They told Joshua’s story and also the stories of their loved ones who they had lost,” Kemler says. “And just two days later, EPA actually issued a press release saying saying that they were going to move forward on finalizing the proposal.”
But Kemler and others aren’t waiting for the EPA. They’re pushing for retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop carrying products that contain methylene chloride now. In an emailed statement, Lowe’s says the chemical “has historically been the most effective product option for removing paints and varnishes efficiently,” and that the company does provide several alternatives that don’t contain methylene chloride. The industry group Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance advocated for the new labeling standard that warns against using products containing the chemical to refinish bathtubs, which has caused some of the fatalities.
Maureen Swanson with the Learning Disabilities Association of America, says beyond these documented fatalities, there are other risks to using products that contain methylene chloride, and another chemical EPA is looking at called NMP.
“Pregnant women exposed to these toxic paint stripping chemicals have babies who are at higher risk for learning and developmental problems including A.D.H.D like behaviors,” she says. “EPA states that children in the home when methylene chloride is used can suffer permanent learning impairments.”
These chemicals can also affect the nervous system, and longer exposure has been associated with liver and lung cancers.
Swanson says there is no reason for stores to delay removing products that contain these chemicals from their shelves.
In June, Lauren Atkins will travel to the Lowe’s shareholder meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina to share the story of her son’s death, and ask the company’s CEO to ban methylene chloride products.
“My son’s death is not going to be in vain if it can help one person not get hurt,” she says. “And I’m going to speak up my voice is going to be heard anywhere anyone will listen.”
Do you have products that contain methylene chloride in your house? Get rid of them at one of Pennsylvania Resources Council’s household chemical collections. The next one is Saturday, June 23, 2018. You can find all the dates here.