EPA “Action” on Toxic Chemicals: Thanks, but No Thanks

EPA continues to use administrative stalling tactics to avoid taking real action to protect the public from the whole class of Teflon "forever" PFAS chemicals and the acutely toxic methylene chloride.

The Trump EPA has again shown it intends to do nothing meaningful to protect the public from the whole class of Teflon “forever” chemicals known as PFAS. 

The chemicals are associated with a wide range of health effects including cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid disease, pregnancy-related hypertension, damage to the liver and immune system and developmental harm. And, thanks to the carelessness and callousness of Dupont, “Chemours” (a Dupont spinoff), 3M and others, the drinking water of millions of Americans across the country is now polluted with these chemicals. They’re also found in commercial and consumer products including food packaging, carpeting, clothing, and even some dental floss. 

As the scope of the crisis has expanded, some states have scrambled to respond by adopting their own drinking water standards and passing broader legislation—including Washington’s ban on PFAS in food packaging and in fire fighting foam (a major source of drinking water contamination). Congress is considering multiple pieces of legislation to address the problem (more on this below). And, a new movie starring Mark Ruffalo, “Dark Waters,” chronicles the story of Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer from Ohio who took on DuPont in court on behalf of West Virginia citizens harmed by PFAS dumped in the Ohio River.

For the Trump administration, “action” on PFAS means:

And this week, the latest: EPA has announced an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”—ostensibly to take public comment on which of the nearly 5,000 PFAS chemicals should be added to the Toxics Release Inventory, which requires industry to report on its releases of included chemicals to air, water, or land (correct answer: all of them). 

As my NRDC colleague Jon Devine says, the ANPRM is “the perfect administrative go-to when you want to look like you’re doing something, but don’t want to actually do something.” Exactly. 

EPA is spinning this diversion as an “important step to advance” the agency’s PFAS action plan.  Like the rest of the Trump EPA’s ’Action’ Plan, this is designed to look like EPA action to address the PFAS crisis. In fact, the agency is doing everything it can not to act, and to stop others from doing so. This “important step” is a transparent attempt to sway Members of Congress to vote against the legislation that will compel EPA to take concrete action on PFAS. Nobody should be fooled.

And this comes less than a week after EPA touted a ban on the consumer use and sale of the toxic chemical methylene chloride in paint strippers. The ban was finalized in March but just took effect. It’s an important public health step that will make the public safer from exposure to a deadly chemical. But, by itself, the consumer ban is not enough to fully protect the public, or to comply with the requirements of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). EPA is still failing to sufficiently protect people from methylene chloride because the Trump

EPA refuses to take meaningful action to protect the public.

Here’s what you need to know about EPA’s failure to fulfill its duty on methylene chloride:

Methylene chloride is an acutely lethal chemical.  It releases toxic fumes that turn into carbon monoxide in the lungs, killing users in as few as ten minutes. Chronic exposure is linked to liver toxicity, cancer, and harm to the central nervous system. In January 2017, the Obama administration proposed banning the use of methylene chloride and another chemical, n-methylpyrollidone (NMP) in paint strippers. Methylene chloride was already known to have killed more than 50 people—an estimate widely understood to undercount the actual deaths it has caused.  NMP is a common substitute for methylene chloride, which is associated with reproductive harm. Safer and effective substitutes are available for both chemicals. The Trump EPA shelved the proposed ban on methylene chloride and NMP for nearly two years, during which time at least four more people are known to have been died from exposure to paint strippers containing methylene chloride.

However, in 2018, NRDC, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families (SCHF), and other organizations launched a citizens’ campaign to pressure large retailers to stop carrying paint strippers containing methylene chloride or NMP. The campaign was a tremendous success: by the end of 2018, a dozen major retailers including Lowe’s, Home Depot, Sherwin-Williams, and Wal-Mart had pledged to stop carrying paint strippers containing either chemical by the end of the year.  EPA did nothing itself to encourage retailers to take action to protect the public from methylene chloride or NMP, despite having already concluded that both chemicals used in paint strippers posed an unreasonable risk to health.

Meanwhile, NRDC, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LACLA) represented by Earthjustice and others sued EPA to compel the Trump EPA to finalize the proposed ban on consumer and commercial uses of methylene chloride in paint strippers.

In the face of imminent litigation, and the rapid retail abandonment of both methylene chloride and NMP in paint strippers, EPA finally acted. But it didn’t do what was necessary to fully protect the public. While EPA finalized the ban on consumer sales and uses of methylene chloride, it declined to finalize the ban on commercial use, a decision that leaves workers—who are the most likely to be harmed by methylene chloride—unprotected. It also fails to protect anyone near a worker using methylene chloride—for example, someone living near a worker using the chemical.  And the agency took no action on NMP, despite its recognized dangers.

Just as it has done on PFAS, EPA announced—wait for it—an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking! That’s right, an ANPRM to take public comment on other options besides a ban on commercial use—including a possible program on training and licensing commercial users of methylene chloride. That’s interesting, because EPA had already considered and rejected that as a viable approach to protecting the public when it proposed the ban back in 2017. Again, the Trump EPA used this administrative tool as a stalling tactic, pretending to at least consider taking action, rather than actually doing something to address an immediate, ongoing and serious threat to public health. The same groups that sued EPA previously on methylene chloride have sued yet again to compel EPA to finish the job and protect the public.

These do-nothing policies are what one would expect from a chemical industry lobbyist who wanted to simulate caring about the harm caused by toxic chemicals and protecting the public. Both “actions” are undoubtedly the brainchild of chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck, who ran EPA’s Toxics office from 2017, until moving to the White House recently to spearhead the Trump Administration’s opposition to anything that actually protects people from PFAS chemicals. They are the industry-captured government version of the chemical industry’s Delay Game strategy: take all steps necessary to prevent or impede  regulation of the industry’s toxic and poisonous products for as long as possible. 

It is a cynical approach to policy that it is wrecking a system intended to protect the public. The chemical industry’s way is a callous disregard for the pain and suffering  of people all over the country (and the world)—whose stories wind up in movies like Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action and, now, Dark Waters.

Correction: an earlier version of this post indicated that Michael Dourson consulted for DuPont on PFAS.  It has been revised to reflect that he consulted for the state of West Virginia on PFAS, after being recommended to the state by DuPont. For more, see here.

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