Deadly chemicals: Store-bought products blamed for dozens of deaths

ATLANTA — A product you can buy in metro Atlanta stores -- and may even be in your garage -- is blamed for dozens of deaths.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed banning paint strippers that contain the chemical methylene chloride two years ago, but Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Nicole Carr found the new rules have not gone into effect yet.

Carr emailed the EPA about the ban and a spokesperson told us the final rule was sent for review Dec. 21. But we talked to two mothers whose sons died, who said paint strippers need to be banned now.

Rita Welch said her son her son died nearly 20 years ago.

“I miss his smile. I miss his hugs,” Welch said.

As a teenager, Welch’s son John started working at a shop outside Chattanooga, Tennessee stripping furniture.

One day, Welch got a call at work that John had been in an accident.

“I said, ‘My baby’s dead. Is my baby dead?’” Welch said.

Doctors eventually restarted his heart.

The first time Welch saw John in the hospital, he was hooked up to a respirator.

“And he said it’s methyl chlorine and tylene. He said, ‘My God, you’ve just killed my nephew,’” Welch said.

The next day doctors said John was brain dead.

Welch and her ex-husband made the difficult decision to take John off life support and he died.

Welch called OSHA to report John's death.

Although an autopsy was never done on him, paperwork shows inspectors found high levels of methylene chloride at the shop.

“So they fined them $1,500. A slap on the hand,” Welch said.

The shop's owner declined to comment.

According to a lawsuit filed in January, paint strippers containing methylene chloride are responsible for more than 50 deaths.

Lauren Atkins is a Pennsylvania mother suing the EPA because it has not enacted a ban on paint strippers containing the chemical proposed more than two years ago.

“This chemical should not be on the market at all,” Atkins said.

Since then, the EPA revised the ban so that workers like John would still be allowed to use methylene chloride.

Atkins’ son Joshua died while using a paint stripper on his BMX bike in 2018.

"So I opened the door and I found him slumped over. He had already passed away,” Atkins said.


An autopsy determined Joshua died of methylene chloride.

Atkins and the non-profit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families successfully got Lowes to voluntarily pull the paint strippers off their store shelves.

Home Depot and Sherwin Williams soon followed.

One Channel 2 Action News producer went undercover and bought paint strippers with methylene chloride from metro Atlanta Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Sherwin Williams stores.

Only one Lowe's store we went to had it on the shelves -- but wouldn't sell it.

“This cannot be sold,” the employee told our producer. “It’s on the recall list.”

Channel 2 Action News contacted Home Depot and a spokesperson said they have since put measures in place so it can't be bought at the register.

Sherwin Williams said the container we bought was missed in turning over end of year inventory.

For the first time, Ace Hardware Corporation told us it will stop selling the products by the end of July 2019, but its independently owned stores can make their own decisions.

The Director of the Georgia Poison Center Dr. Gaylord Lopez told Carr over the past five years, it has received about 50 or 60 calls about methylene chloride, but no one died. He said most of the calls were about young children coming into contact with the chemical.

“The thing about these products is it’s almost as if you’re inhaling anesthesia,” said Dr. Lopez. He told us methylene chloride can depress the nervous system and cause a person to lose consciousness.

Dr. Lopez said it can also cause fast, irregular heartbeats. “Then in essence you have a heart attack,” Dr. Lopez said.

There are safe alternatives. Channel 2 Action News found paint strippers labeled as non-methylene chloride paint remover at many home improvement stores.

Both Welch and Atkins want paint strippers with methylene chloride removed from all store shelves.  “I don’t want any other loved ones to be lost. There have been too many already,” said Atkins.

There is no timeline for the EPA ban to go into effect.