US EPA Bans Most Uses of Methylene Chloride: How Toxic Is It?

worker distressed with methylene chloride exposure

Methylene Chloride, also known as Dichloromethane (DCM), is a widely used solvent in various industries due to its effectiveness in dissolving a range of substances. Produced and imported into the United States, its use is estimated at over 260 million pounds per year. However, Methylene Chloride is highly toxic, posing significant health risks upon exposure. According to a study, there were about 85 methylene chloride–related fatalities from 1980 to 2018, where most deaths occurred at work. Recognizing these dangers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a ban on many of its uses to protect public health and safety.

What is Methylene Chloride?

Methylene Chloride (DCM) are colorless volatile organic compounds with a slightly sweet odor. Its chemical formula is CH₂Cl₂, making it a chlorinated hydrocarbon. DCM is highly effective as a solvent and is used in a variety of industries and applications, such as:

    • Adhesives
    • Paint and coating products
    • Pharmaceuticals
    • Metal cleaning
    • Chemical processing
    • Aerosols

Methylene Chloride (DCM) Technical Properties:

  • Molecular Weight: 84.93 g/mol
  • Boiling Point: 39.6°C (103.3°F)
  • Melting Point: -96.7°C (-142°F)
  • Density: 1.33 g/cm³
  • Vapor Pressure: 47.3 kPa at 20°C
  • Solubility in Water: 13 g/L at 25°C
  • Flash Point: None (non-flammable)

Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for Methylene Chloride

OSHA has established Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for DCM to minimize worker exposure. The current PEL for DCM is set at 25 parts per million (ppm) as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA), meaning that workers should not be exposed to concentrations above this level during an 8-hour workday. Additionally, OSHA has set a Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 125 ppm for any 15-minute period. This STEL is designed to prevent acute effects from short-term exposure to high concentrations of DCM.

Where is Methylene Chloride Found?

Methylene chloride is used in a variety of products and applications due to its effective solvent properties. Common places where DCM is found include:

Paint Strippers: One of the most common uses of methylene chloride is in paint strippers and removers. DCM is highly effective in breaking down paint, varnish, and other coatings, making it a popular choice for both commercial and consumer paint removal products.

Adhesives: Methylene chloride is also used in adhesives, particularly in industrial settings. It helps in bonding materials like plastics, rubber, and fabrics. The solvent properties of DCM make it ideal for dissolving certain types of materials, creating strong and durable bonds.

Cleaning Agents: Methylene chloride is also found in heavy-duty cleaning agents and degreasers due to its powerful solvent properties. It is particularly effective in removing tough stains, grease, and grime from various surfaces. Common applications include industrial and automotive cleaning.


Methylene Chloride Toxicity and Health Risks

Reviewing methylene chloride SDS provides critical information on the associated health risks and safety precautions. Understanding these risks is crucial for workers and consumers who may come into contact with this hazardous substance.

Who is Likely to Get Exposed to Methylene Chloride?

Workers in industries that use DCM, such as manufacturing, construction, and paint removal, are at high risk of exposure. Additionally, individuals who aren't directly handling the product can still be exposed to DCM. This includes consumers using products containing DCM, like paint strippers and certain aerosols, as well as bystanders who may inhale vapors in the vicinity of these activities.

Effects of DCM Acute Exposure

Acute exposure to methylene chloride hazards can lead to immediate and severe health effects. When inhaled or absorbed through the skin, DCM is rapidly metabolized in the liver to carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and other metabolites. The formation of CO can interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, leading to symptoms similar to those of carbon monoxide poisoning. The health effects and risks of acute exposure include:

  1. Central Nervous System Depression: Acute exposure to high levels of DCM can cause significant central nervous system depression, resulting in dizziness, headaches, and confusion. In severe cases, it can lead to loss of consciousness.
  2. Respiratory Effects: Inhalation of DCM vapors can irritate the respiratory tract, causing coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. High concentrations can lead to respiratory distress and suffocation.
  3. Cardiovascular Effects: Acute DCM exposure can lead to the formation of carbon monoxide in the blood, reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin. This can cause cardiovascular stress, resulting in symptoms like chest pain, palpitations, and in severe cases, heart attack.
  4. Gastrointestinal Effects: Exposure to high levels of DCM can cause nausea and vomiting, as the body attempts to rid itself of the toxin.
  5. Fatality: In extreme cases, high concentrations of DCM can lead to asphyxiation and death due to the displacement of oxygen in the air and the toxic effects of carbon monoxide produced in the body.

Effects of DCM Chronic Exposure

Long-term exposure to methylene chloride hazards is associated with serious health risks. Chronic exposure occurs when individuals are repeatedly exposed to low levels of DCM over an extended period. The primary health risks include:

  1. Cancer: Chronic exposure to DCM has been linked to an increased risk of various cancers, particularly liver, lung, and pancreatic cancer. DCM is metabolized to formaldehyde and other reactive compounds, which can cause DNA damage and promote carcinogenesis. Animal studies have shown that long-term inhalation of DCM can cause cancer, leading to concerns about similar effects in humans.
  2. Neurological Effects: Prolonged exposure to DCM can lead to significant neurological damage. DCM can cross the blood-brain barrier, affecting the central nervous system and leading to cognitive impairments, memory loss, and behavioral changes.
  3. Liver and Kidney Damage: Continuous exposure to DCM can result in severe damage to the liver and kidneys. The metabolites of DCM can induce oxidative stress and inflammation, leading to hepatotoxicity and nephrotoxicity, impairing their function over time.

Methylene Chloride Poisoning Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of DCM poisoning is critical for timely intervention. Methylene Chloride poisoning symptoms include:

  1. Headaches and Dizziness: Initial signs of exposure due to central nervous system depression.
  2. Nausea and Vomiting: Often follow prolonged inhalation or significant exposure.
  3. Respiratory Difficulties: Including shortness of breath and chest tightness, due to respiratory tract irritation.
  4. Loss of Coordination: A sign of severe neurological impact, leading to impaired motor functions.
  5. Loss of Consciousness: In extreme cases, leading to potential fatalities if not addressed immediately.


Why was Methylene Chloride Banned?

safe handling of methylene chloride

The regulatory actions against methylene chloride (DCM) span several decades, driven by growing concerns over its toxicity and associated health risks. In the 1980s, initial warnings were issued about the dangers of DCM. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the US EPA and other regulatory bodies implemented various restrictions and safety guidelines to minimize exposure. Advocacy groups played a significant role in highlighting fatal incidents linked to DCM, particularly in consumer paint strippers.

In 2013, these groups intensified their efforts, leading to increased regulatory scrutiny. By 2019, the US EPA announced a ban on the consumer sale of DCM-based paint strippers, marking a significant step in protecting public health. On April 30, 2024, the Biden-Harris Administration finalized a ban on most uses of methylene chloride.

Alternative products with similar costs and efficacy to Methylene Chloride products are generally available for most prohibited uses:

    • Benzyl Alcohol-Based Strippers
    • Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO)
    • N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP)
    • Biodegradable Paint Strippers

EPA’s Final Rule on Methylene Chloride Ban

The EPA’s final rule on methylene chloride was established to address the severe health risks associated with its use, particularly in consumer paint and coating removers. Key elements of the rule include:

    • Consumer Use Ban: Bans the manufacture, processing, and distribution of methylene chloride in all paint and coating removers for consumer use.
    • Commercial Use Restrictions: Imposes significant restrictions on commercial use, ensuring that workers handling DCM are provided with adequate training, protective equipment, and workplace ventilation.
    • Regulatory Compliance: Workplace Chemical Protection Program requires companies to adhere to strict guidelines for labeling and packaging to inform users of the risks and necessary precautions.
    • Notification and Record-Keeping: Requires manufacturers (including importers), processors, and distributors to notify downstream companies of the prohibitions on DCM use and to maintain detailed records of these notifications.

Impact of the Methylene Chloride Ban

The ban on methylene chloride has significant implications for both industries and consumers. Key impacts include:

    • Industries: Many industries that relied on DCM for its solvent properties have had to transition to alternative chemicals. This shift has required adjustments in manufacturing processes and additional training for workers to handle new substances safely.
    • Consumers: The ban has limited the availability of DCM-based products, pushing consumers to use safer alternatives. This has led to an increased demand for and development of non-toxic paint strippers and other products.


Methylene Chloride Hazards Case Study

Lethal Exposure to Methylene Chloride during Bathtub Refinishing
Aspect Details
Type of Use The worker was using a methylene chloride-based paint stripper to remove old paint from a bathtub
Exposure Details The incident occurred in a small, poorly ventilated bathroom. The worker was not using proper personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a respirator or adequate ventilation systems
Symptoms and Outcome The worker began experiencing symptoms of dizziness, headaches, and shortness of breath shortly after beginning the task. Despite these symptoms, the worker continued to use the product. Eventually, the worker lost consciousness due to the high concentration of methylene chloride vapors displacing oxygen in the air. Unfortunately, the worker was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead due to methylene chloride poisoning and asphyxiation.
Analysis This tragic incident highlights the severe risks associated with methylene chloride, especially in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation. It underscores the importance of following safety guidelines, using appropriate PPE, and ensuring proper ventilation when working with hazardous chemicals like methylene chloride. Employers must provide training on the dangers of such chemicals and enforce safety protocols to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Source: OSHA FatalFacts, Lethal Exposure to Methylene Chloride during Bathtub Refinishing, November 2016


How to Reduce Methylene Chloride Exposure

Reducing exposure to methylene chloride hazards is crucial to protect the health and safety of workers and consumers who may come into contact with this hazardous chemical. Follow these

1. Install Effective Engineering Controls: These engineering controls involve modifying the work environment to reduce the concentration of DCM vapors. Effective engineering controls include the use of local exhaust ventilation systems, which capture and remove vapors at the source before they can disperse into the work area. Additionally, general ventilation systems can help dilute DCM concentrations in the air.

2. Implement Strict Administrative Controls: Administrative controls focus on changing work practices and chemical hygiene plans to reduce exposure to methylene chloride hazards. Employers should implement strict guidelines for the use and handling of DCM-containing products. This includes scheduling tasks involving DCM to limit the number of workers exposed and reducing the duration of exposure.

3. Use Appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Workers handling DCM should wear appropriate respiratory protection, such as air-purifying respirators with organic vapor cartridges or supplied-air respirators, depending on the concentration of DCM in the air. Chemical-resistant gloves, safety goggles, and protective clothing should also be used to prevent skin and eye contact with DCM.

4. Transition to Safer Alternatives: Many industries have developed and adopted alternative solvents and products that do not carry the same health hazards as DCM. For instance, benzyl alcohol-based paint strippers, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), and biodegradable solvents offer effective and less toxic options for many applications.

5. Ensure Proper Disposal Methods: DCM-containing products are crucial to prevent environmental contamination and protect public health. DCM should never be poured down drains or released into the environment. Instead, it should be collected in designated containers and disposed of as hazardous waste according to local, state, and federal regulations.

Methylene Chloride is a potent solvent with widespread industrial use, but its significant health risks cannot be ignored. The EPA's ban on many of its uses reflects the need to protect public health. By understanding DCM's dangers and adopting safer practices and alternatives, we can mitigate its impact and safeguard workers and consumers alike.


FAQs about Methylene Chloride

What is the problem with methylene chloride?

Methylene chloride (DCM) is a highly toxic chemical that poses significant health risks. Exposure can lead to acute symptoms like dizziness, headaches, and respiratory distress, and chronic exposure is linked to cancer, neurological damage, and organ toxicity. It has also been responsible for numerous fatalities, particularly in poorly ventilated areas.

How to safely use methylene chloride?

To safely use methylene chloride, ensure proper ventilation and use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators, gloves, and goggles. Follow all safety guidelines and regulations, including using local exhaust ventilation and avoiding enclosed spaces. Employers should provide training on safe handling practices and emergency response procedures.

What products still contain methylene chloride?

Despite regulations, some industrial products still contain methylene chloride. These include certain adhesives, paint strippers for commercial use, degreasers, and some aerosol propellants. It's essential to review product labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) to identify DCM presence.

What foods contain methylene chloride?

Methylene chloride is not typically found in foods. It is primarily used as an industrial solvent and in products like paint strippers and adhesives. Any presence in food would be due to contamination and would be highly regulated and controlled.

Is methylene chloride highly explosive?

Methylene chloride is not highly explosive. It is classified as non-flammable, but it can pose a fire hazard under certain conditions, such as when exposed to high temperatures or open flames. Proper storage and handling are crucial to prevent any fire-related incidents.

What are volatile organic compounds?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of organic chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. VOCs are found in many industrial and household products, including paints, varnishes, solvents, and cleaning agents. They can contribute to air pollution and pose health risks, including respiratory issues and other adverse health effects.


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The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.