Science/Medicine
3:07 pm
Thu February 23, 2012

Chemical in bathtub refinishing products blamed in 13 deaths

A chemical used to refinish bathtubs has been linked to 13 deaths – three of them in Michigan.

More people are having their bathtubs refinished or doing it themselves to save money. Many are using products that contain methylene chloride, available at home improvement stores and on the Internet.

The chemical is marketed to the aircraft industry, to strip paint from airplanes. It's also used as a degreaser.

Methylene chloride is colorless, highly volatile and toxic.

Dr. Kenneth Rosenman heads Michigan State University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. He says the chemical can be deadly if it’s inhaled.

"At low levels, the guys doing these jobs will complain about nausea or headaches, maybe feeling dizzy," Rosenman says. "But at higher levels, they'll become sleepy, fatigued and comatose."

He says autopsies of people who died while using the chemical showed they didn't have a heart attack or pulmonary embolism, but they did have very high levels of methylene chloride in their blood.

Rosenman says the chemical  can also be absorbed through skin and is a known carcinogen. He says respirators and gloves don’t provide enough protection.

"This type of product cannot be used safely in a bathroom setting. It's too small," he says. "There's no safe way to use this at home."

Rosenman says there's been an increase in the number of small businesses in Michigan that provide bathtub refinishing services. He says MSU has notified all of them about the dangers of methylene chloride.

He says the results of MSU’s investigation have been reported to federal officials, including the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission.