Methylene Chloride Deaths Highlight Need for EPA Action

A peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Internal Medicine finds that 85 people have been killed by the dangerous solvent methylene chloride in the last 4 decades. The study notes that even these numbers don’t capture the full scope of harm, because many deaths likely are unreported, and deaths likely to have occurred due to exposure may not have identified methylene chloride as the cause of death. The study assessed verified deaths from acute exposures but does not capture the harms, including cancer, caused by chronic exposure.

These findings underscore the urgent need for the Biden Administration to reverse Trump policies that continue to leave thousands of people—particularly workers—at risk of harm from methylene chloride. At the end of the Obama administration, EPA proposed to ban the use of methylene chloride in paint strippers, because it poses unreasonable risks to consumers and, even more so, workers. Trump’s political appointees at EPA, including ethics-challenged Administrator Scott Pruitt and Toxics Czar Nancy Beck refused to finalize the ban—favoring the chemical industry Beck came from. Methylene chloride paint strippers killed four people in the two years after the ban was proposed. Pressure from the victim’s families finally prompted Pruitt to promise Congress that EPA would act—leading to adoption of half of the original proposed ban; on consumer use and sales of the deadly paint strippers, but no ban on commercial use and sales—despite workers being the most at risk.

NRDC is one of several groups and individuals who sued over their failure to ban commercial sale and use of methylene chloride-based paint strippers. The other plaintiffs and counsel include the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Earthjustice, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Vermont PIRG and two of the mothers whose sons were killed by methylene chloride while the Trump administration dawdled. With the 100-day milestone fast approaching, there is no excuse for the Biden administration continuing to defend the Trump EPA’s illegal inaction. A ban on commercial use and sale of methylene chloride paint strippers is the fastest way to increase protection and prevent additional needless deaths. 

In a separate case, NRDC, Neighbors for Environmental Justice, New Jersey Work Environment Council, United Steelworkers, and Sierra Club (along with counsel from Earthjustice and the OSH Law Project) have sued to overturn another Trump era action—the EPA evaluation of methylene chloride under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) which found that domestic manufacturing, recycling and disposal, among other uses, do not pose an unreasonable risk to health. The Trump EPA—Wheeler and Beck again—relied on a number of unsupported assumptions, and industry-friendly decisions—including failing to account for environmental exposures via air pollution and contaminated drinking water—to determine that those uses of the chemical posed no unreasonable risk. Here too, the Biden administration must quickly reverse course and put EPA on the right track for evaluating chemicals and protecting the public from dangerous exposures.

Today’s carefully researched study, which has important additional details that are worth reading, underscores the real-world consequences of failing to act. For more on the study, see the blog by my colleague Dr. Veena Singla, a co-author of the study.

About the Authors

Daniel Rosenberg

Director, Federal Toxics Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

First comprehensive review in U.S. reveals more fatalities than expected due to deadly chemical—researchers urge action from the EPA to limit use of the chemical and prevent future deaths.

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