UMass Lowell researchers have developed a paint-stripping solvent that they say provides a safer alternative to the toxic, potentially deadly products available for purchase at local hardware stores.
A team led by Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) research manager Greg Morose, which included public health, chemistry and engineering students, developed a new paint remover that performs as well as products that contain the toxic chemical methylene chloride.
An analysis conducted by the Center for Public Integrity identified at least 56 accidental exposure deaths linked to methylene chloride since 1980 in the United States. At least 14 workers have died since 2000 while using the product to refinish bathtubs, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The vapors from methylene chloride can stop breathing and trigger heart attacks in less than one hour, according to public health officials.
“These deaths are preventable,” says Prof. Emeritus of Public Health and TURI Director Michael Ellenbecker. “Methylene chloride is one of the most toxic and dangerous chemicals that anyone is using today."
Dust masks and cartridge respirators sold in home improvement stores don’t adequately protect workers or consumers. Only a full-face respirator with a separate air supply, or exhaust ventilation to remove the fumes, are sufficient, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH.
Safer Products Need to Work
Through careful selection, testing and toxicity research, the research team identified three existing safer chemicals that, when combined in a certain ratio, remove most paint coatings within 20 minutes, comparable to the time it takes for products with methylene chloride.
“Consumers and companies typically require a quick dwell time, and we’re excited that we can offer this solution as a safer alternative,” says Morose.
The university, which funded the research along with TURI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recently applied for a patent for the paint-stripping solution and is seeking companies interested in licensing it.
“We hope to partner soon with a company to get this new formulation onto store shelves,” Morose says. He stresses that all paint-stripping products need to be used carefully.
“Since stripping paint requires highly active solvents, all paint-stripper products have some level of hazard associated with them,” says Morose. “TURI is confident, however, due to our initial testing, that the UMass Lowell formulation is much safer than paint strippers containing methylene chloride. After our final phases of testing, our goal is to get this safer product in the marketplace as soon as possible.”
CBS News Features Safer Paint Stripping Product
The work of UMass Lowell’s researchers caught the attention of CBS News correspondent Anna Werner, who is producing a series about the dangers of methylene chloride. She visited campus in December to interview Ellenbecker and Morose. The segment aired on Jan. 2, on “CBS This Morning.”
In the interview, Morose demonstrated the safer UMass Lowell solution using a test board with seven layers of primer, paint and polyurethane that was baked to simulate coatings that are difficult to remove. He showed that the safer solution lifted all layers of paint within 20 minutes.
“By working together with industry, government and academia, we can find safer solutions that work,” said Ellenbecker. “We can save lives and help companies be more competitive in the marketplace.”
The European Union banned most uses of methylene chloride paint remover products in 2012. California is considering whether the sale of these products should be restricted. In January 2017, the EPA had proposed a ban of methylene chloride use in paint-stripping products. However, on Dec. 19, the agency delayed the ban indefinitely.