Methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane or DCM, is a solvent used in a range of products. The average consumer is most likely to encounter it in paint strippers, even though safer alternatives exist. Methylene chloride has been linked to cancer, cognitive impairment, and asphyxiation.
Numerous people have died from exposure to methylene chloride. In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to ban this chemical’s use in paint stripping. In 2019, EPA only finalized the ban on consumer uses and sales, leaving workers unprotected. In 2021, the agency withdrew the part of the proposed rule that would have protected workers. We’re calling on retailers to take action and stop selling paint strippers containing methylene chloride. In the meantime, if you need to remove paint or a coating, make sure to avoid methylene chloride and other toxic chemicals like N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP).
What products contain methylene chloride?
- Paint Strippers: Methylene chloride is a key ingredient in a variety of paint strippers sold in the U.S.
- Adhesives: This chemical is also used in a range of adhesives, such as acrylic cement for hobbyists. For a comprehensive list of adhesives containing methylene chloride, click here to view the list developed by EPA in February 2017 (see pages 7-10)
- Other Products: Other products containing DCM are used for automotive care, lubrication, lithography, and general cleaning. Review EPA’s comprehensive list here.
How am I exposed to this chemical?
If you are a consumer or worker who uses products with methylene chloride, you may be exposed by inhaling the fumes of the chemical. It’s also possible for this chemical to be absorbed through skin.
- Paint strippers with methylene chloride are a common source of exposure. Many methylene chloride-based paint and coating removers are used in areas with limited ventilation such as bathrooms, allowing fumes to build up. Methylene chloride vapor is heavier than air, so it concentrates low to the ground, right around the level where people stripping surfaces are breathing.
- Keep in mind: According to EPA, respiratory protection may not be enough to protect people from being exposed where levels of methylene chloride are high.
Even those who aren’t directly using the product could be exposed to the chemical.
- Children: Children and other occupants present in homes where methylene chloride is used for paint removal may be exposed during the removal even if kept away from the work area. If the work area has limited ventilation, methylene chloride fumes may linger for several hours and children may be exposed during this time if they return to the work area (e.g., a bathroom). This risk may extend to children or others living in apartments or in hotel rooms next to units where paint is being removed.
- Developing fetuses: Pregnant women working with methylene chloride risk exposing their fetus to the chemical.
- Workers: Even if you aren’t using the chemical itself, if you enter an area where it was used recently or disposed of, you may be exposed.
EPA estimated in 2017 that each year, 32,600 workers and 1.3 million consumers have been exposed to methylene chloride in paint and coating removers.
What are the possible health impacts?
Short exposures (“acute”):
- Death by heart attack or asphyxiation. Methylene chloride turns into carbon monoxide in the body and can cut off the oxygen supply to the heart. At high doses the chemical switches off the breathing center of the victim’s brain. To learn about the events that led to the death of a professional bathtub refinisher who was stripping a bathtub with methylene chloride, view this video produced by the Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program.
U.S. Deaths from methylene chloride since 1980
(click the map to view an interactive version with more information)
- Other nervous system effects range from sensory impairment to loss of consciousness. For a first-hand description from someone who experienced acute methylene chloride exposure, check out the beginning of this video by the California FACE program.
- In particular for fetuses: since their hemoglobin has a higher affinity for carbon monoxide than adult hemoglobin, these nervous system effects may be exacerbated when fetuses are exposed to high concentrations of DCM.
Long-term exposures (“chronic”) include:
- Nervous system effects such as cognitive impairment, effects on attention
- Cancer of the liver, brain, and lung, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma
- Liver toxicity
- Kidney toxicity
- Reproductive toxicity
What are governments and businesses doing about this?
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule, only finalized part of it two years later, and in 2021 withdrew the part that was never finalized, leaving workers at risk. The reforms made to the Toxic Substances Control Act in June 2016 greatly strengthened EPA’s authority over toxic chemicals. To address the serious risks posed by methylene chloride in paint strippers, EPA proposed a rule to ban this use (for both workers and consumers) in January 2017. However, later that year, under pressure from the chemical industry, the Trump administration signaled its intent to indefinitely delay the rule. After hearing from families of people who had died using the products, the administration announced in May 2018 that it would finalize the rule “soon.” Almost another year passed before EPA issued a final rule, but this rule only covered consumer uses and sales of the dangerous paint strippers while continuing to allow sales to commercial users like contractors. In January 2021, EPA withdrew the part of the proposed rule that would have protected workers.
- While EPA delayed in taking comprehensive action, several top retailers have agreed to phase out their sale of paint strippers containing methylene chloride. For example, Lowe’s, Sherwin-Williams, and The Home Depot agreed to stop selling paint strippers with methylene chloride in all of their stores (globally) by the end of 2018. Walmart agreed to stop selling methylene chloride-containing paint strippers online and in most stores by February 2019.
- U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set limits on workplace exposures to methylene chloride. However, companies still allow their workers to be exposed to unsafe environments and disregard the OSHA limits.
- California has added “paint or varnish strippers containing methylene chloride” to its Priority Product list. Manufacturers are required to determine whether this chemical is necessary in paint or varnish strippers and research safer alternatives.
- The European Union has issued strong restrictions. Effective since 2012, the EU imposes significant restrictions on the sale and use of methylene chloride in paint strippers.
How can I avoid exposure to methylene chloride?
Know the ingredients in your paint stripper or other products listed above
- If you or your home contractor needs to remove paint or a coating, make sure the product used does not contain methylene chloride. Methylene chloride has killed a wide range of people from workers to those conducting “do-it-yourself” projects.
- Even if you are in a different room while the work is going on – or if the work was completed in a poorly ventilated room and you use it just a few hours after the project – you may still be at risk of developing health problems from the fumes.
- Companies have commonly substituted methylene chloride with another toxic chemical: N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP). It’s also important to avoid products containing this chemical.
Look for safer products
- Click here to view a list of safer paint and varnish strippers and graffiti, stain, spill, and all-purpose removers sold by major U.S. retailers (updated December 2019).
- Additional safer alternatives are under development: watch this video to find out more.
- For more detailed information on safer alternatives, see reports by Clean Production Action and the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI).
Use another method without chemicals – although it may carry different risks
- It’s possible to strip bathtubs by sanding.
- Other paint and coating removal methods include thermal removal, hydroblasting, abrasive blasting, laser removal, and infrared removal.