States and Retailers: The Chemical Industry Is Lying to You

The chemical industry wants to convince states, retailers and the public that the Trump EPA is regulating toxic chemicals and protecting health: they're lying.

Every year the chemical industry holds a conference known as “Global Chem”—and every year representatives of the chemical industry say things that are revealing, scary, ridiculous, or delusional (or sometimes all four); apparently oblivious that reporters are writing down what they are saying.

A recent story about this year’s Global Chem conference by Dave Reynolds in Inside EPA [which you need a subscription to access] reports that chemical industry officials are unhappy that states have not yet been preempted (i.e. prevented by law) from enacting restrictions on toxic chemicals under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA). They say that states, retailers and the general public (that is, everyone but their own toxic industries) should be more trusting that the Trump EPA will “mitigate risk” from chemicals under TSCA. The article makes clear that the chemical industry had two main objectives for revising TSCA: 1) to preempt state regulation of chemicals; 2) to give states, retailers, and consumers the (false) impression that EPA is protecting them from exposure to toxic chemicals, and therefore, no additional actions were needed (the chemical industry calls this “consumer confidence”).

However, because the Trump EPA is implementing TSCA so as to weaken science, avoid public disclosures of hazard information, and thwart safeguards, during this slow and misguided process, no preemption has yet occurred; luckily, states and retailers are continuing to act to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. Which, to the chemical manufacturers, is an urgent problem.

According to the news report: “Officials with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) [the trade association representing Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and other chemical manufacturing corporations] urged industry participants to better communicate with state regulators, retailers and consumers to show that the EPA’s implementation of the new TSCA will adequately regulate chemicals and that state rules or retailers banning products from store shelves is unnecessary.”

The story quotes ACC’s State Affairs Manager Kierstin Turnock: “’There is not a lot of confidence at the state level about how EPA is implementing TSCA and what the process is, so they are continuing to pass regulations’ restricting chemicals.” Meanwhile, “Kelly Montes de Oca, ACC’s director of partnerships and marketing, sustainability and market outreach, urged chemical producers to seek to assure retailers and consumers that industry is committed to safe and sustainable products, and to counter advocacy groups’ focus on chemical hazards by supporting risk-based reviews, such as those EPA is conducting under the revised TSCA.”

So, the industry’s plan is to provide false assurances to states, retailers and consumers that the Trump EPA and chemical manufacturers are hard at work in Washington DC, to make everyone safer from toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, they are conducting their beltway lobbying business as usual. Hey, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

The Trump EPA (AKA: the Chemical Industry Version of EPA) is taking actions to avoid environmental and health safeguards almost daily (see NRDC Trump Watch). It’s actions on behalf of the chemical industry are no exception (see my recent blog on EPA using TSCA to undermine worker protections). The Trump EPA deserves a special Dishonorable Mention for its unrelenting efforts to not protect workers or consumers from exposure to the deadly chemical methylene chloride in paint-strippers. In the waning days of the Obama Administration, EPA proposed to ban both consumer and commercial uses after finding that it posed an “unreasonable risk” to human health under TSCA (it can convert to carbon monoxide in the body, quickly causing incapacitation, heart attacks, coma and death).  The Trump EPA—whose Toxics Office was then under the direction of a former chemical industry lobbyist (she’s now the #2 in the office)—shelved the proposal for more than two years, during which at least four people are known to have been killed by exposure to methylene chloride in paint strippers.

The good news is that thanks to consumer demand (and the threat of litigation), over the past year, more than a dozen retailers—including giants including Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Amazon—have removed or committed to removing paint strippers containing methylene chloride (and another dangerous chemical known as NMP which the Obama EPA also proposed to ban) from their shelves. Retailers and product manufactures for the most part just want to sell products, not toxic chemicals, and can be responsive to consumer demands for safe products.

Most people can see the situation clearly: it is a tragedy and a policy disaster that EPA has failed to act and as result people have continued to die, and it is a positive development that the nations’ retailers have responded by getting the products containing deadly toxic chemicals off their shelves. But the chemical industry and the Trump EPA see it exactly the opposite: for corporations that profit from plying hazardous chemicals, dodging safeguards is a plus, and if workers and others are sickened and die in the process, well, it’s not their problem.  

Now the Trump EPA and the chemical industry are going to try and have it both ways: do nothing to protect the public, but pretend to be doing so, to boost “consumer confidence” in the ruthless Trump EPA. Today EPA finalized a rule to “ban” consumer uses of methylene chloride in paint-strippers—for which they claim to be protecting the public. But, EPA rolled back the Obama EPA proposed ban on commercial uses of methylene chloride in paint strippers. The Agency also took no action on NMP, a toxic substitute for methylene chloride, which the Obama EPA had also proposed banning. Safer and effective substitutes to both chemicals are available.

There are many problems with EPA’s action today, but they really boil down to two essential facts:

  • Workers—and bystanders near workers—will continue to be exposed to methylene chloride—as a result, some will be killed from acute poisoning, others will suffer diseases, disabilities, and deaths over time since methylene chloride is also a carcinogen (liver, lung, brain, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma) as well as toxic to the liver and nervous system.
  • Consumers will continue to be poisoned by methylene chloride products; in part through the purchase and use of products sold for commercial uses.

The EPA’s deeply cynical and shameful (in)actions on methylene chloride stand out, but they are simply one of the more noticeable pieces of a larger policy agenda driven by the chemical industry which includes:

  • Censoring Science Rule – EPA’s proposal to stop using human health studies as a basis for determining whether chemicals cause harm
  • Chlorpyrifos – failed to ban a neurotoxic pesticide harming children and agricultural communities
  • TCE – failure to finalize proposed bans on uses of this (other) known carcinogen that lead to high exposures to workers and consumers
  • TCVP – failure to finalize a ban on an organophosphate pesticide in pet products that leads to high exposure to children
  • PV29 – EPA’s first assessment of a chemical under relies on secret industry health studies and estimates worker exposure based on an undocumented and unverifiable ‘personal communication’ from a Sun Chemical Corporation representative
  • New Chemicals – EPA is ignoring major foreseeable exposures of workers to new chemicals; its approach is inconsistent with the requirements of the revised TSCA
  • Legacy uses/conditions of use – EPA has decided to exclude numerous uses of chemicals and sources of exposure in its assessment of chemicals—also inconsistent with TSCA’s requirements
  • No testing – despite receiving streamlined authority from Congress to require test information from chemical companies, the Trump EPA has not issued a single test order in more than two years
  • Stacking the Science Advisory Board – EPA has purged its advisory board of independent academic scientists and stacked its review panels with industry representatives and consultants

This should all make the chemical industry’s efforts to convince States, Retailers and the public that they can be “confident” everything is being taken care of by EPA a very hard sell.

For all the state legislators out there who meet with chemical industry lobbyists, please think of Mr. Kevin Hartley who was only 21-years old and killed by methylene chloride while refinishing a bathtub. For all the retailers out there who are taking meetings with chemical industry representatives who discourage you from taking products off your shelves that contain dangerous chemicals—methylene chloride, flame retardants, phthalates, PFAS, pesticides—take a moment to remember Mr. Drew Wynne, a 31-year old small businessman who was killed by methylene chloride stripping products while refinishing a walk-in refrigerator.  

You can look those chemical industry lobbyists directly in the eye and know that they are lying to you about the Trump EPA taking effective steps to inform or protect the public from toxic chemicals; it is and remains your duty to protect your customers, to earn consumer confidence the right way.

As the Inside EPA story notes, Safer States released an analysis this year “showing 22 states weighing 97 bills, targeting individual chemicals or substances, or groups of chemicals for elimination or reduction.”

That is exactly what states should be doing. Retailers and product manufacturers should be adopting strong policies that increase ingredient disclosure and avoid products containing harmful chemicals. Those are the steps that will merit true consumer confidence; anything less is just a lie.

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