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CDC warns of bathtub refinishing chemical tied to 13 deaths

methylene chloride, cdc, bathtub, paint
This Feb. 23, 2012 photo released by Michigan State University shows the label on a product containing the chemical methylene chloride, used as a paint-stripper and degreaser. There have been 13 deaths linked to use of the chemical by workers who were refinishing bathtubs. AP

(CBS/AP) The CDC has issued a warning about a chemical found in paint-removers used to strip bathtubs, after 13 people died in 10 states. The deaths were all workers who used products containing methylene chloride, an industrial degreaser found in some home improvement products.

"Each death occurred in a residential bathroom with inadequate ventilation," the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. "Protective equipment, including a respirator, either was not used or was inadequate to protect against methylene chloride vapor."

Three of the deaths were in Michigan, and the remaining 10 were reported in nine other states.

The report said the chemical "has been recognized as potentially fatal to furniture strippers and factory workers but has not been reported previously as a cause of death among bathtub refinishers."

Using methylene chloride-based products in confined spaces like bathrooms presents great risks, the CDC said. It urged worker safety and public health agencies, manufacturers and trade groups to "communicate the extreme hazards" of their use to employers, workers and the public.

"Employers should strongly consider alternative methods of bathtub stripping," it said.

According to the CDC, ten different products were associated with the 13 deaths. Six of the products were marketed for use in the aircraft industry, the rest for use on wood, metal, glass, and masonry. None of the product labels mentioned bathtub refinishing. The percentage of methylene chloride in the products ranged from 60 to 100 percent.

The alert's co-author, Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at Michigan State University, said it is better to keep the chemical out of the bathroom. Methylene chloride vapors are heavier than air and likely remain in bathtubs after each application.

"To use products containing methylene chloride safely, work areas must be well-ventilated, and when levels of methylene chloride exceed recommended exposure limits, workers must use protective equipment," Rosenman, chief of the school's Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said in a statement Thursday. "In a small bathroom, it is unlikely these products can be used safely."

The report also says that the death toll might be an underestimate, because national databases don't include self-employed workers and some deaths may have been attributed to heart disease when they were caused by the chemical.

The co-author of the CDC warning, Michigan State industrial hygienist Debra Chester, first investigated the 2010 death of a 52-year-old man who owned a bathtub refinishing business. She then discovered two other Michigan deaths, leading to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigation that turned up 13 deaths.

OSHA has more information about methylene chloride.

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