You use chemicals every day without thinking about it. Dichloromethane is one of the most used and yet most controversial chemicals on the market.
Scientists have linked 85 deaths to dichloromethane use. But don’t throw out your products just yet.
What exactly is dichloromethane? How do scientists make it, and what do they and manufacturers use it for? What makes it so risky?
Answer these questions and you can make informed decisions about the chemical products you buy. Here is your quick guide.
The Essentials of Dichloromethane
Dichloromethane is a chemical solvent that is found in many products. It is an organochlorine, being a mixture of chlorine and other organic elements. Chloroform and mustard gas are other examples of organochlorides.
It is a clear liquid that looks very similar to water. It has a sweet odor reminiscent of ether or chloroform.
You may have heard of “methylene chloride” or “methyline chloride.” These are alternative names for dichloromethane. Many common people call it methylene chloride, but scientists use all three names interchangeably.
How People Make Dichloromethane
As the name suggests, dichloromethane starts with methane. Producers combine methane with chlorine gas at very high temperatures, sometimes in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
The methane and chlorine gas through a series of different chemical reactions. Each reaction produces a mixture that is more chlorinated than the previous mixture. It may take several rounds of chlorination before dichloromethane appears.
When it does appear, it usually presents alongside other substances. Chloroform and chloromethane are made through the same reactions that produce dichloromethane.
Scientists must take the slurry of products and distill them. They do this by boiling the slurry in a flask.
Vapors rise up and run through tubes before condensing into a container. One container holds dichloromethane on its own.
Dichloromethane can appear in nature without any human intervention. Volcanoes and macroalgae can mix methane and chlorine together, producing small amounts of the compound in the soil or air.
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How People Use Dichloromethane
Dichloromethane has a number of industrial applications. It works as a base, allowing chemicals to mix together and create safe reactions.
Dichloromethane is used in many chemistry laboratories across the country. It can extract elements from compounds, including in water. If a substance is starting to mix with water, scientists can put dichloromethane on top to pull the substance toward the surface for extraction.
At the same time, scientists can use it to help combine certain substances together. It can force two amino acids to bond without breaking up inside a cell.
Many paint strippers contain amounts of dichloromethane. It interacts with paint that is stuck on a wall, pulling it away from the surface beneath it.
It can pull grease off of metal, so manufacturers put it in cleaning mixtures for automobiles. Most auto repair shops have washing systems with some level of the compound in them. Machinists may mix it with other ingredients so they can bind acrylics together.
Cement and other building materials also contain dichloromethane. In these applications, it helps combine ingredients together to promote structural integrity.
You may have heard of pesticides that have dichloromethane in them. It is not a prominent or common compound in most common pesticides. It is sometimes used to fumigate grain and kill insects, but it is more common in other applications.
Food and Drink
Dichloromethane is a great tool to remove caffeine from coffee beans and tea leaves. As such, many food manufacturers mix it with materials to make decaffeinated coffee and tea.
It works similarly on spices and beer hops. It can pull out the small amounts of caffeine found in these substances without compromising on flavor or texture.
Manufacturers use the compound in small enough amounts that you will not find it on an ingredient label. It is used early in the industrial process and trace amounts are not present by the time you consume the food.
A wide number of medications rely on dichloromethane. It helps speed up the chemical processes that create antibiotics, steroids, and vitamins. Some manufacturers even put it in the coating for tablets so they break down in the stomach.
In dental manufacturing, dichloromethane can bond with other ingredients to support acrylic teeth. It cannot dissolve inside the mouth, so it is a relatively safe material.
The massive presence of dichloromethane across different industries suggests that it is safe. It is true that it does not pose an immediate risk to health, at least for consumers removed from the production process.
But the compound can have some health risks for people exposed to large amounts of it. Inhaling it can irritate the respiratory tract, including in the lungs.
A large amount of vapor can block the airways and cause asphyxiation. Some people have died due to a heart attack or asphyxiation caused by inhaling massive amounts of the compound.
If you use dichloromethane products occasionally, you should not worry about your exposure. If you encounter the compound multiple times a day, you should learn how to safely use it. Wear respiratory protective equipment whenever you are exposed to it in its raw form.
What You Should Know About Dichloromethane
Dichloromethane is everywhere. It is a mixture of methane with chlorine gas that scientists make at very high temperatures.
It is similar to chloroform, but it is less toxic. You can find it in car cleaning liquid, coffee beans, and dental implants.
Yet it can be dangerous. Inhaling its vapors can shut the lungs and brain down, causing significant damage or death. But no one who uses the compound casually has died from it.
You have the right to know what goes into every product you buy. Learn more about common chemicals by following our coverage.