EPA identifies another risky chemical: Can it succeed in using TSCA to restrict it?

Lindsay McCormick is a Research Analyst.

Last week, EPA released a risk assessment on the chemical N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP).  NMP is produced and imported into the U.S. in huge quantities (184 million pounds reported in 2012), and has a variety of uses including petrochemical processing, making plastics, and paint stripping.

Experiments in laboratory animals demonstrate that exposure to NMP during pregnancy leads to adverse developmental outcomes in the offspring, such as low birth weight, skeletal malformations, and mortality (see here and here).

EPA’s assessment focused exclusively on NMP exposure from its presence in products used to remove paint and other coatings.  Because of NMP’s potential to disrupt fetal development, EPA assessed exposures in women of childbearing age.

EPA found that exposure to NMP-based paint strippers in women of childbearing age beyond four hours per day presents risks that cannot be mitigated from use of protective gear such as gloves and respirators.  Risks obviously could be greater, even for shorter exposure times, if protective equipment is not consistently used.  

The latest risk assessment of a TSCA Work Plan Chemical

The NMP risk assessment is the fifth risk assessment EPA has completed of the Work Plan Chemicals identified using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Developed in 2012, the TSCA Work Plan Chemicals program is designed to assess the risk of priority chemicals on the market (new chemicals go through a separate process).  Currently, the work plan includes 90 chemicals, selected based on factors such as potential concern for children’s health, neurotoxic effects, and carcinogenicity.  Where possible, EPA is assessing groups of chemicals with similar chemistries and potential health effects, such as the brominated phthalate flame retardant cluster.

NMP is a common alternative to dichloromethane (DCM), another paint stripper that EPA recently assessed under the same program (see our previous blog).  DCM-based paint strippers are widely used in occupational settings and have led to a number of worker deaths from refurbishing bathtubs in confined spaces.   The DCM risk assessment released in August 2014 identified carcinogenic and neurotoxic risks associated with this use.

Although there are clear risks from DCM-based paint strippers, the new EPA risk assessment demonstrates that NMP is a risky alternative.  This illustrates the importance of systematically assessing groups of chemicals in order to avoid substituting one bad chemical with another bad one.

Risk management difficult under TSCA

Despite the risks that these paint-stripping chemicals pose, it is unclear what action EPA will be able to take to limit their use.  TSCA, the U.S.’s primary chemical safety law, is outdated and provides EPA with very limited authority to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products.  Unlike many other statutes EPA administers, such as the Clean Air Act, risk assessments under TSCA are rare and do not directly lead to regulatory actions.  Even if EPA identifies a significant risk from a specific chemical, it is not legally required to take action to address the risk.  And TSCA has proven nearly impossible for EPA to use to ban or restrict chemicals in commerce.

In 1989, EPA issued a regulation to ban asbestos using TSCA Section 6, which in principle provides EPA with the authority to limit manufacture, processing, distribution, use or disposal of a chemical in commerce.  However, EPA’s regulation was challenged, and in 1991, a U.S. Court of Appeals struck down EPA’s proposal, arguing EPA had not met its burdens under TSCA.  EPA has never again tried to restrict a chemical using TSCA.  Its failure to ban asbestos, a chemical that kills 10,000 Americans a year, is widely referenced as a prime example of TSCA’s failure.

For the first time since 1989, EPA has indicated its intent to attempt to utilize its authority under TSCA Section 6 to restrict the uses of several of the Work Plan Chemicals for which it has found significant risks.  EPA is developing a rulemaking to ban or restrict certain uses of Trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical degreaser linked to cancer and adverse developmental effects.  And an EPA press release posted yesterday indicates EPA is taking the first step toward developing a TSCA rule to ban or restrict DCM and NMP in paint strippers.  EDF commends EPA’s efforts to revive its authority under TSCA Section 6, but it will clearly be confronted with major hurdles if history is any guide.

Need for TSCA reform

While EPA is trying to making the best of a bad situation, in order to effectively protect Americans from toxic chemicals, Congress must reform TSCA.  Only a tiny fraction of the thousands of chemicals used in home improvement products, such as paint strippers, and in everyday items ranging from cleaning products to clothing to furniture, have ever been reviewed for safety.  And TSCA leaves EPA powerless to effectively regulate even known hazardous chemicals like asbestos, lead, and formaldehyde – not to mention NMP, DCM and TCE.

In announcing the release of the NMP assessment, Jim Jones, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, alluded to the difficulty the Agency will face in seeking to regulate the Work Plan Chemicals under TSCA:  “It is a reminder that as we evaluate these risks, it is very clear that our nation’s chemical laws are in much need of reform.”

TSCA is turning 40 in 2016.  It’s long overdue for a total makeover.

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