Lauren Atkins says her 31-year old son Joshua was the picture of health.
“He ate organic foods,” she says. ”He always stretched and did yoga, exercises, and was very outdoorsy.”
Joshua was a snowboarder, a climber, and most of all, he loved freestyle BMX biking. His mom says after he discovered BMX in second grade, the bike became like his third leg.
But in February, Joshua Atkins was visiting his mother in South Connellsville, Fayette County, and died suddenly. He had been removing paint from his BMX bike with a chemical paint stripper. Lauren Atkins found him after she came home from working a late shift.
“I went upstairs and I thought he had just fallen asleep, working on his bike,” she recalls. “But he wasn’t asleep. He’d been gone for several hours.”
A toxicology report revealed her only son died from methylene chloride inhalation. The chemical is an ingredient in paint strippers sold at hardware stores, and is also used commercially. According to data compiled by the group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, methylene chloride has been linked to at least 64 deaths since 1980.
MAP: U.S. Deaths from Methylene ChlorideAt least 64 people have died from acute exposure to methylene chloride since 1980. The following map shows the location of those fatalities. Click on a marker to read the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Congress amended the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, allowing EPA to restrict chemicals like methylene chloride. And under the Obama administration, EPA did go ahead and propose a ban on the chemical, but the proposal was put on hold last December by the agency.
Beth Kemler with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families says things changed a couple of weeks ago when a delegation of people whose family members had died from methylene chloride inhalation met with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in Washington.
“They told Joshua’s story and also the stories of their loved ones who they had lost,” Kemler says. “And just two days later, EPA actually issued a press release saying saying that they were going to move forward on finalizing the proposal.”
But Kemler and others aren’t waiting for the EPA. They’re pushing for retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop carrying products that contain methylene chloride now. In an emailed statement, Lowe’s says the chemical “has historically been the most effective product option for removing paints and varnishes efficiently,” and that the company does provide several alternatives that don’t contain methylene chloride. Critics of an outright ban say better labeling could help keep people safe.
But Maureen Swanson with the Learning Disabilities Association of America, says beyond these documented fatalities, there are other risks to using products that contain methylene chloride, and another common chemical called NMP.
“Pregnant women exposed to these toxic paint stripping chemicals have babies who are at higher risk for learning and developmental problems including A.D.H.D like behaviors,” she says. “EPA states that children in the home when methylene chloride is used can suffer permanent learning impairments.”
Swanson says there is no reason for stores to delay removing products that contain these chemicals from their shelves.
In June, Lauren Atkins will travel to the Lowe’s shareholder meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina to share the story of her son’s death, and ask the company’s CEO to ban methylene chloride products.
“My son’s death is not going to be in vain if it can help one person not get hurt,” she says. “And I’m going to speak up my voice is going to be heard anywhere anyone will listen.”
Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Allegheny Front.