Needless Deaths: Toxic Solvents in Paint Strippers

The decision by the Trump administration to shelve a ban on the toxic solvent methylene chloride is already responsible for verifiable and actual deaths, with more almost certain to occur.

As we’ve noted in previous blogs (such as here and here), since the Trump Administration took office, the Environmental Protection Agency’s policies on toxic chemicals have largely been written by and for the largest chemical manufacturers like Dow, Exxon and Monsanto. A host of industry-supported decisions—withdrawing a proposed ban on the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, weakening the way the agency reviews of the safety of new (and existing) chemicals—will likely result in a greater number of cancers contracted over time, as well as more instances of developmental delay, neurological impairment and reproductive harm. But another decision by President Trump’s appointees—EPA Anti-Administrator Scott Pruitt and Toxic Chemical Enthusiast Nancy Beck—is already responsible for verifiable and actual deaths, with more almost certain to occur.

One of the last actions taken by EPA during the Obama Administration was to propose a ban on the use of a toxic solvent in paint strippers. The chemical, methylene chloride, turns to carbon monoxide in the body—and can quickly overwhelm workers and consumers, even when wearing masks or respirators, resulting in rapid asphyxiation and heart attacks (it is also a likely cause of several kinds of cancer). More than 50 people have died in the U.S. from accidental exposure to methylene chloride since 1980.

The Obama Administration’s EPA was acting under new authority provided by Congress in its 2016 update of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The revised law set up a system for prioritizing and evaluating thousands of existing chemicals to determine whether they pose an unreasonable threat to health or the environment and a mandate for EPA to address any unreasonable risk it identifies. Knowing it would take time for the new system to be established and get started, Congress specifically authorized the Agency to take action on methylene chloride and two other toxic solvents based on evaluations of the chemical the Agency had recently completed. (The other two solvents are known by their acronyms, NMP and TCE). EPA proposed bans on specific uses of MC, NMP and TCE—the first proposed restrictions on existing chemicals by the Agency since it’s largely failed attempt to ban most uses of asbestos in 1989 almost three decades earlier.

When the Trump Administration took office—can you already guess?—the proposed ban was shelved and has subsequently been re-classified as a “long-term” rule, meaning it is highly unlikely to be made final during the current Administration. Since the proposed ban was published just over a year ago (January 2017), at least two people—Kevin Hartley and Drew Wynne—and possibly more, have needlessly died from exposure to methylene chloride. Their stories are heartbreaking. Safer chemicals and non-chemical methods exist for bathtub stripping and paint and coating removal—the European Union banned the use of methylene chloride in paint strippers in 2010. Rather than following the EU’s lead and protecting the public, the current Dow-friendly EPA appears poised to take steps under TSCA that will ensure no action is taken on methylene chloride for at least five more years. But if the Trump Administration caters to the chemical manufacturers, does that mean nothing can be done to prevent further needless deaths from exposure to methylene chloride?

No. Big-box and online retailers have an independent responsibility—a moral responsibility—to protect their customers and consumers from dangerous and deadly products. Companies like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart cannot simply hide behind the irresponsibility and industry-capture of EPA to get away with not protecting consumers. We’re working with our colleagues at Mind the Store and others to compel major retailers to take action. This week, NRDC sent a letter to Robert Niblock, President and CEO of Lowe’s urging immediate action to remove paint stripping products with methylene chloride as well as NMP (which EPA also proposed to ban) from the store’s shelves and website. We’ve also launched an online petition for people wanting to send their own message to Lowe’s. Please join our campaign. We don’t need any more needless deaths from methylene chloride.

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