No longer must anybody in the EU risk death from exposure to DCM paint strippers

Paul Boughton

The final deadline for the use of dichloromethane-based paint strippers ran out on 6th June 2012. Since then, professional users, eg painters and decorators, are no longer permitted to use this type of paint stripper.

On 6th December 2011, paint removers containing dichloromethane (DCM) in concentrations of 0.1 per cent or more were banned from distribution, this same legislation having already been applicable to the production and importation of paint strippers a year before, on 6th December 2010. This ban, which is now valid in all members states of the EU, is based the decision taken by the European Parliament and Council on 6th May 2009 to amend the EU Limitations Directive 76/769/EC for Dangerous Substances and Preparations with reference to the distribution and use of dichloromethane. [Page Break]

“It is a welcome ban, and it will ensure that nobody in Europe will be exposed to this enormous potential hazard any more,” says Dr Gerald Altnau, chairman of the EASCR, a European association that has strongly committed itself to the furthering of DCD-free paint removers. “Let’s hope it stays that way,” he adds, not without a slight touch of scepticism in his voice. This EU-wide ban was triggered by the repeated occurrence of serious accidents, some of them fatal, with DCM-based paint strippers both in private and professional usage. DCM evaporates rapidly, functions like a general anaesthetic and can cause unconsciousness and, in the worst case, death. Moreover, DCM vapours are heavier than air and will therefore remain in the workplace if not extracted by intensive ventilation. Cases of unconsciousness at the workplace may result in suffocation. DCM is also suspected as being carcinogenic. [Page Break]

“What is also a good sign is the fact that so far no member state has granted any exemptions for its territory,” says Altnau. “At least we have not been informed to such effect by the EU Commission.” Basically, any member state may make exceptions to the ban, but only for specially trained professional users, and only if comprehensive health and protection measures are taken. Such measures must be documented for official control purposes. Exposure limits and safety regulations governing the use of DCM-based paint strippers already existed before the ban, but they tended to be ignored. Any national exemptions from the ban – known as derogations – must be officially made known to the EU Commission, which will then publish them.

“In principle any EU member state may grant an exemption at any time, even in years to come,” says Gerald Altnau, justifying his aforementioned scepticism, “and despite the fact that officially commissioned trials have shown that all coatings can be readily removed with suitable dichloromethane-free paint removers. Any return to hazardous dichloromethane would be extremely fatal.” [Page Break]

The statistics on the EASCR website show a total of 781 accidents – including 71 fatal ones – involving the use of DCM paint strippers. It also includes 13 fatalities from the USA in the years between 2000 and 2011, all of which occurred in the field of professional bathtub refurbishing using DCM-based products.

The recent investigations by the American CDC organisations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), published at the beginning of this year, focus for the first time on the risk posed by the use of DCM paint strippers in the USA. The study also points out that DCM-based paint strippers are still sold off the shelf in DIY Markets in the US. It strongly recommends a comprehensive information campaign on the hazards of dichloromethane and the safety measures that must be taken when working with these paint strippers. [Page Break]

Meanwhile Europe is well ahead in the matter of legislation, though many preparatory steps and initiatives were necessary. Here, too, the vast majority of painting and decorating businesses lacked the necessary know-how to protect their employees adequately against DCM hazards, such protection measures actually being much more expensive than in cases where DCM-free products are used. In most cases nothing was known about suitable alternatives. Consequently, in order to fill this knowledge gap, EASCR was founded in January 2006 by a group of leading producers of user-friendly paint stripping and cleaning products. The aim of the association is to educate companies, authorities and consumers about the risks involved in working with dichloromethane-based paint strippers, to promote safer alternative products across Europe and to further their development and marketing. To this end, the EASCR website provides extensive, regularly updated information. [Page Break]

“With the introduction of the DCM paint stripper ban, the EASCR has certainly achieved one of its major goals,” says Gerald Altnau, summing up the situation, “but this does not mean that we are now dispensable. Quite the contrary. Paint removers generally contain solvents. The banning of DCM does not now make all other formulations non-hazardous. Paint strippers are still chemical products that must be so reactive that they can dissolve painted surfaces. At present we at EASCR are giving thought to how we can best help paint stripper formulators and users in the selection of solvents in order to develop and/or recognise effective paint removers that are as least hazardous as possible. Knowledge about the substances used in the production of paint removers has been steadily increasing since the EU introduced its REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemicals) in 2007 and should therefore be put to good use. – And of course we shall continue to keep a close watch on the implementation of the DCM paint stripper ban in the individual EU member states.”

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