Will the EPA Take Action Against a Paint Stripper Chemical That’s Killing People?

Barely a day goes by without the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cropping up in the news, but the press isn’t necessarily positive.

Last month, the EPA announced a secret science policy that would damage chemical review. Just this Tuesday, Administrator Scott Pruitt testified before the Senate about the millions of taxpayer dollars he frittered away to 24/7 security, with 12 investigations pending for similar expenses.

Meanwhile, the EPA announced updates to an investigation of its own. In between hearings last week, Pruitt met with families whose loved ones died from exposure to methylene chloride, a dangerous compound found in common paint strippers. The EPA now “intends to finalize the methylene chloride rulemaking.”

This may sound like better news, but it’s actually unclear.

EPA Ban on Paint Stripper Chemical – Is It Finally Possible?

The EPA first proposed a ban on methylene chloride in the final days of the Obama administration, saying it posed an “unreasonable risk” to health and the environment. But in late 2017, on par with the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory “reform,” the idea stalled.

To be clear, “unreasonable risk” refers to death. At least 56 people have died from exposure to methylene chloride since 1980, according to a 2015 Center for Public Integrity analysis, among them both consumers and workers. Another 4 died last year, and another Pennsylvania man this February, while the EPA squabbled over what to do about it.

To this day, Americans are free to buy methylene chloride products right off the shelf. People use methylene chloride paint strippers for everyday DIY. But even using protective gear, an unnecessary number of people have died within minutes of inhaling the chemical, which poses a risk of asphyxia in enclosed spaces. Distraught families (and members of Congress) are now taking a stand.

“The families that stood up and said enough is enough here made a difference,” said Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund. “They were able to appeal to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, to demonstrate this was not a partisan fight between environmentalists and industry, it was something that was taking human lives across the country.”

The EPA’s announcement suggests significant progress, considering officials hadn’t anticipated taking final action on methylene chloride this year. But we don’t yet know when this will happen, nor whether “finalize” means “ban.” And even if it did, banning methylene chloride would barely scratch the surface.

The Outlook: Uncertain for All Dangerous Substances

Methylene chloride is only 1 of over 80,000 potentially hazardous substances poisoning the U.S. These include chemicals that many Americans mistakenly believe to be banned, but still pose a deadly risk.

Asbestos, for example, was only partially banned in the ‘70s, and still kills as many as 15,000 people every year while manufacturers continue to profit. Why? Partly because the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was left outdated for 45 years, before Obama’s administration finally amended the law in 2016. But more is owed to chemical manufacturers’ success in lobbying to keep their products on the market, especially under the pro-industry Trump administration.

In this case, paint stripper manufacturers have fought tooth and nail to continue using methylene chloride in their products, saying it’s more effective than alternatives and blaming consumers for incorrect use. One lobbyist group, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, called instead for new labeling to warn against use for bathtub refinishing.

Asked how they can ensure consumers check the label, a representative said, “We don’t have any research on that.”

When the EPA first proposed the methylene chloride ban last year, the agency stressed that labeling wasn’t enough. And a 2016 EPA report sourced by CBS News noted that while “labels and warnings are effective to some degree,” the responsibility to use them lies with the consumer, and safety precautions are too complex for the average person. To guarantee their protection, we must “eliminate (or remove) the risk.”

The European Union eliminated methylene chloride paint strippers 7 years ago. What is the EPA waiting for?

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020