This story was published in partnership with theCenter for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates inequality.
A bathtub. A floor. A bike. The items Kevin Hartley, Drew Wynne and Joshua Atkins had been working on at the time of their deaths less than 10 months apart varied, but what cut their lives short was the same: a chemical in paint strippers and other products sold in stores nationwide.
In their grief and horror, their families vowed to fight like heck to keep methylene chloride from killing again.
Get it off the shelves. Ban it.
But in the U.S., with its checkered history of weak worker and consumer protections, astonishingly few chemicals have ever met that fate. That’s how methylene chloride became a serial killer despite warnings of its fumes’ dangers before Hartley, Wynne and Atkins had even been born. No agency intervened as it struck down dozens of people — if not more — in recent decades.
After a Center for Public Integrity investigation and pleas from safety advocates, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed to largely ban it in paint strippers.
That was January 2017, the final days of the Obama administration. Hartley died that April, Wynne in October of that year and Atkins the following February amid the deregulatory fervor of the Trump administration, which wanted to dump rules rather than add them — especially at the EPA. The methylene chloride proposal was going nowhere.
The three men’s mothers and other relatives had a seemingly impossible task ahead of them.
And yet, 13 months after Atkins’ death, the under-pressure Trump EPA acted to stop retail sales of paint strippers with methylene chloride. And in April, the Biden EPA proposed a rule to ban the chemical in all