A publicly available chemical has been killing people—teens working odd jobs, a mother of four, an Iraq War veteran, DIY home-improvers—since the 1940s, and the government has done little to nothing about it, according to an eye-opening Slate investigation. The chemical solvent methylene chloride found in many over-the-counter paint strippers can soften old paint in minutes; it can kill just as fast. Using the chemical in an enclosed area—it's frequently used to strip old bathtubs—can result in a quick death from asphyxiation or heart attack. But products containing it bear only a small label warning of cancer risks. The Center for Public Integrity found at least 56 accidental deaths associated with the chemical since 1980—most recently in July—and the number is likely much, much higher.
“People have died; it poses this cancer threat," an advocate for alternatives to toxic chemicals tells Slate. "And yet nobody does anything." The EPA took heat for not weighing in on methylene chloride in the '70s, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission denied a petition to ban it in 1985. It finally addressed safety concerns in 2012 by printing an informational pamphlet. The European Union stopped selling paint strippers containing the chemical four years ago, but the United States hasn't followed suit. The EPA is expected to propose a new law—anywhere from new warning labels or an outright ban—on methylene chloride next year. But with powerful and historically successful chemical lobbying groups supporting methylene chloride, a ban is unlikely. Read the full report here. (Read more toxic chemicals stories.)