Long-Delayed Methylene Chloride Ban Finalized but Still Leaves Workers at Risk

Increasing pressure from families, lawmakers, and advocates forces EPA’s half-step on deadly chemical

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it has finalized a rule that bans methylene chloride in paint strippers for consumer uses but still allows use of the deadly products in workplaces. Instead of banning commercial uses, as it originally proposed to do more than two years ago, EPA is merely starting a process to gather input on what a possible future certification and training program might look like – delaying any action for years.  

While EDF welcomes the long-overdue protection of consumers, it falls far short of what is needed to protect all Americans. EPA has acknowledged that these products present unreasonable risks to consumers, yet workers are even more at risk. The agency has also acknowledged that alternative products are readily available, so it is all the more distressing that EPA’s action leaves out workers.

Getting a consumer ban happened only because of the courageous efforts by families that have lost loved ones to these products, the leadership shown by major retailers that committed to pull products from their shelves, and pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and advocacy organizations.

“While it is an important step to bar consumer use of methylene chloride-based paint strippers, EDF is alarmed that EPA has abandoned its earlier proposal to protect those most at risk – the many workers, including owners and employees of small businesses, who are exposed to these deadly products on the job,” said Lindsay McCormick, Chemicals and Health Project Manager at Environmental Defense Fund. “Most reported deaths from these products are of workers, and so we will continue to fight for their protection, demanding that EPA do its job and protect all Americans.”

Methylene chloride is highly neurotoxic, and acutely lethal. It is highly volatile and can kill within minutes of inhalation. There have been over 50 reported deaths from acute exposure in recent years – though many more likely have gone unreported.

For two years, EDF and others have urged this administration to finalize EPA’s 2017 proposed ban on these deadly products. This action was directly authorized under the bipartisan overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 2016. The agency based its proposed ban on a robust risk assessment demonstrating both the lethal risks from acute exposure and a host of other acute and chronic adverse health impacts.

In the time since the ban was originally proposed, people have continued to lose their lives to these products. The family members who have lost loved ones since the ban was proposed have bravely come forward to share their stories and urge the agency to take swift action to finalize the ban. Their advocacy efforts, the support of lawmakers, and action by retailers, including Lowe’s, Walmart, and Home Depot, have been instrumental in drawing national attention to this issue and forcing EPA action. Unfortunately, those exposed on the job still will not be protected by the scaled-back ban.

“After hearing my son’s story and promising action on methylene chloride, I am deeply saddened to see this administration go back on its word,” said Wendy Hartley, who lost her son, Kevin, in April 2017 to a methylene chloride-based paint stripper he was using on the job. “Kevin wouldn’t have been protected by this ban. And the decision to weaken the originally-proposed ban means that all of the other workers who use this – for small family businesses, like Kevin, or at larger companies – will be left unprotected. I will keep fighting until this administration does its job and ensures these deadly products are out of homes, stores, and workplaces.”

“It speaks volumes that the first restriction on a chemical finalized by this administration under the newly strengthened TSCA is a watered down version of the ban as first proposed,” said Dr. Richard Denison, Lead Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “The administration found a way to take what started as a far more health-protective ban, delay any action for two years, and then strip out any protections for workers, those most at risk from these products. The Trump EPA is once again prioritizing narrow industry interests over public health and worker protection.”

Based on a pre-rule EPA also announced today, it appears the agency will relegate any actions to address commercial uses of methylene chloride in paint strippers to a lengthy, uncertain process that will take years to complete. EPA is merely inviting input on what a future worker training and certification program should look like – options EPA had specifically considered earlier and rejected as inadequate to address the high risks workers face.

Just this week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change held an oversight hearing on the Trump EPA’s failure to protect workers from toxic chemicals. Committee members highlighted EPA’s abandonment of worker protections from methylene chloride-based paint strippers as a key example of how the agency has shirked its responsibility under TSCA.

EPA has also abandoned restrictions it previously proposed under TSCA on two other hazardous solvents – trichloroethylene (TCE) and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP).

In a meeting with OMB concerning the draft final rule, EDF voiced strong concerns over any narrowing of the original proposed rule and urged the office to ensure the ban protects workers as well as consumers. Additionally, since January, more than 13,000 concerned Americans sent over 39,000 messages to their Members of Congress demanding EPA and OMB finalize a ban covering both consumer and most commercial uses.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on EDF VoicesTwitter and Facebook.

 

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