Charleston Family Cautiously Optimistic; EPA Announces Action on Paint Stripper Chemical

May 11, 2018

Drew Wynne small business owner who died in October 2017.
Credit Wynne Family

His voice sounds excited, yet hesitant.  Brian Wynne has just learned the Environmental Protection Agency will take action on a proposed ban from the Obama administration that would keep a potentially deadly chemical from being used in paint strippers commonly found on store shelves.  He met with the EPA chief two days ago, sharing the story of his younger brother from Charleston who died after being exposed to that very chemical, methylene chloride.

“This is exactly what we were asking for,” said Brian Wynne.  “We’re very encouraged by this development.  But at this point we remain cautiously optimistic.

Brian’s brother Drew was 31 years-old when he died from what his death certificate says was exposure to methylene chloride vapors.  He was starting his own business and like many new, business owners did much of the work himself.  He was using a paint thinner he bought at a local home improvement store to refinish a walk in refrigerator last October when his business partner found him on the floor and called his brother Clayton.

“He was panicked,” said Clayton Wynne.  “He was screaming over and over he’s gone.  He’s gone.”

Drew Wynne's older brothers Brian (left) and Clayton (right) at their mother's home just outside Charleston
Credit Victoria Hansen

The Wynne family believes if the proposed ban from more than a year ago had been enacted, the paint stripper would not have been available and Drew would still be alive today.  They’ve been fighting for the ban since his funeral.  Monday they met with EPA chief Scott Pruitt, along with a Tennessee family who lost a loved one since the ban was proposed, trying to convince the agency to act and no longer postpone the ban.

“We got an emotional reaction from him,” said Brian Wynne immediately following the meeting with Pruitt.    “We showed him pictures and death certificates.  I asked him do you think this is a problem and he said yes.”

If Wynne is hesitant, it’s because the EPA announcement does not give a time line for enacting what it calls the” rulemaking”.  Wynne wants to make sure it is a ban, nothing less, and he wants it put in place before another person loses their life.  The Environmental Defense Fund says 50 people have died from exposure to methylene chloride in such products since the 1980s.  The chemical has also been implicated in three deaths, including Drew’s, since the proposed ban.  The Tennessee man who died was reportedly working as a professional, refinishing bathtubs in Nashville.  We reached out to the EPA to find out when the agency will take action, but we did not hear back.

We also reached out the manufacturer of the product Drew had been using at the time of his death.  But after repeated attempts, the company did not respond. Its product does include a clear warning about its potential dangers on the back label.   Its website says it’s the largest manufacturer of solvent, removers, fuels, cleaning and prep products.

“We are still shocked that the product is still for sale right now,” said Brian Wynne before the EPA announcement.  “And that he died from something called Goof Off.”

We did talk to a Pennsylvania family who sued the manufacturer of “Goof Off” nearly 20 years ago.   Judy and Wayne Steiner say their son Brian was 30 years-old when he was using a similar product by the same company to refinish a car.  They say he had a heart attack and survived.  But they say he continued to have heart problems until he died from another heart attack five years later.  The Steiners  say the company settled the lawsuit  and although it did not admit to any wrong doing, they thought the issue had been resolved.

“How many people die of it and you’re not aware of it,” said Wayne Steiner.  “They had a heart attack.  What are you going to do?”

The Wynne family says they’ve found  bipartisan support on the prop0sed ban.  Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey questioned Pruitt just last month.  “Were you and others at the EPA aware of Drew Wynne’s death when the agency abandoned the ban of the deadly chemical,” he asked.   “We have a proposed ban in place," responded Pruitt.  “We haven’t finished the process.”

Representative Mark Sanford and Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham wrote a letter to the EPA chief, pushing for the 16 month old proposed ban to move forward.   The Wynne family met with both Sanford and Scott during their three day trip to our nation’s capital and say they are grateful for their support.  Several advocacy groups held a call to action this week, petitioning the stores that sell the methylene chloride products to pull them.

“Hopefully these actions will have a voice that the EPA will hear,” said Analisa Smith.  She’s the president of the Learning Disabilities Association of South Carolina.

We may have accomplished it. If we did, we had a wildly successful trip to Washington. - Brian Wynne

“I think our objective all along was for him to recognize our loved ones and for him to acknowledge the loss and for him to take action,” said Brian Wynne of his 35 minute meeting with the EPA chief.  “We may have accomplished it.  If we did, we had a wildly successful trip to Washington.”

Meantime, back in Charleston, Drew’s cold brew coffee business has been wildly successful as well.    Riptide Coffee has  even expanded to  Atlanta.  It’s a bittersweet moment for the Wynne family, both his company's success and a potential ban on the chemical they say took his life.

“It doesn’t bring him back,” said Brian Wynne.  “But it does give us some resolution and I think his legacy will continue to live on as an agent of change."

For more on the EPA announcement, go to: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-action-methylene-chloride