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EPA still hasn't acted nearly two years after proposing ban on deadly chemical methylene chloride

EPA hasn't acted on ban of deadly chemical
EPA still hasn't acted two years after proposing ban of deadly chemical 05:01

Many of America's largest retailers, including Amazon, are planning to stop selling all paint stripping products containing methylene chloride. Fifty-six people have died since 1980 from exposure to paint strippers containing the chemical and although the EPA proposed banning it in 2017, the agency has yet to take action.

CBS News correspondent Anna Werner has been investigating this story for the past year, reporting on three young men who died while using products made with methylene chloride since April 2017, and on a new, safer formula that's expected to be on the market in the U.S. soon.

This Christmas wasn't the same for Lauren Atkins. Last February, her 31-year-old son Joshua died while using paint stripper in a bathroom to refinish the fork from his BMX bike.

"He had a smile that lit the sky. He was very generous. He was very kindhearted," Atkins said. "I went up and knocked on the door and he didn't respond. So I opened the door and I found him."

Joshua had been gone for several hours.

"I was heartbroken because none of these deaths needed to occur. All of these were preventable," Lauren said.

Joshua joined victims Kevin Hartley and Drew Wynne, who both died in 2017 -- all young men who lost their lives using common strippers containing methylene chloride. 

The chemical is so dangerous the EPA's own scientists decided it should be banned for all consumer and most professional uses, saying it posed an "unreasonable risk." But that was a year ago and the EPA still hasn't taken action. So Lauren Atkins and the other mothers plan to sue the agency next month.

"We've banded together and we're going to continue to be together until our voices are heard and until this is off the shelves," Lauren said.

The Environmental Defense Fund's Richard Dennison said those deaths were avoidable and the EPA must do more.

"It can't cut corners, It can't start creating loopholes that allow the industry to escape the intent of this rule, which is to ban these uses and protect consumers as well as workers. We are concerned that one corner they might cut is to try to exempt from this ban commercial uses of these chemicals," Dennison said.

But some aren't waiting for the government to act. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute developed an alternative they say is safer and works just as well, and a Canadian company has announced it's producing a new product using that alternative formulation.

"The goal is to have it available in every major hardware paint and retail chain in the United States, Canada, and Mexico ... we feel it's a great option to have on the shelves of every retailer," said Greg Morose, a researcher at the institute, earlier this year. 

In addition, major chains including Lowe's, Home Depot, Walmart and online retailer Amazon now say they will begin phasing out methylene chloride-based strippers by the end of the year. The changes should save lives

The primary manufacturer of the strippers with methylene chloride has been critical of the researchers' new alternative in the past. They point out it's flammable and say it too is toxic.

The researchers said the solvents in their formulation don't, "cause immediate death from high exposures" like methylene chloride can and that alone, they said, makes the new product much less hazardous. That product is expected to hit store shelves in the U.S. any day.

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