NRDC and several partners filed a lawsuit today to overturn EPA’s flawed risk assessment of methylene chloride, the first of ten such assessments EPA has drafted under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Under that law, EPA is supposed to evaluate chemicals, considering all of their known, intended and reasonably foreseeable “conditions of use” to determine whether they pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. EPA is required to consider the chemical’s impact on “susceptible populations,” including people who are potentially more susceptible to the chemical’s effects (like children) or who are more heavily exposed (like workers and communities located near polluting facilities). If EPA finds that a chemical poses an unreasonable risk, it must take steps to eliminate the risk. Where EPA finds no unreasonable risk, it need not take further action. And this is important: if the federal government decides not to act, states are generally also preempted from taking additional actions. That means if EPA conducts a poor evaluation, or makes a wrong decision, the consequences can be quite serious.
If EPA underestimates the risk of a chemical, it leaves people—and particularly vulnerable populations like children, workers, and fenceline communities exposed to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals. And that’s what the agency is doing with methylene chloride.
EPA’s methylene chloride risk evaluation is flawed in many respects, along the lines of nine other draft risk evaluations the agency has issued. They are the product of a team driven largely by Nancy Beck, the Trump Administration’s Toxics Czar. Beck has been nominated to chair the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), but her nomination is in trouble. In part, that’s due to her decade-plus career of undermining protections from toxic chemicals and suppressing independent science. Beck has done her best to block anything suggesting that chemicals can cause harm. Her nomination is also in trouble because she performed so poorly at her recent hearing—both in written and oral testimony. She dodged direct questions and misled Senators on a host of matters relating to toxic chemicals like methylene chloride, TCE, PFAS, along with other matters.
Beck’s work at EPA has been criticized by the Agency’s own Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, and by federal courts. A court of appeals last November overturned her “Framework Rules” for risk evaluations, which would have allowed EPA to ignore exposure to chemicals like asbestos, lead and PFAS when evaluating their risks, as long as the chemicals was no longer manufactured for a particular purpose. For example, the agency would have ignored potential exposure to asbestos in buildings, schools and homes, simply because asbestos is no longer manufactured for those uses. That approach flopped with the federal courts, and the methylene chloride evaluation won’t do much better.
Beck is probably most notorious for her callous delay in finalizing a proposed ban on the use of methylene chloride in paint strippers—a delay which has caused at least four deaths since 2017. Primarily due to an intense pressure campaign mounted by the families of three of the victims—Drew Wynne, Kevin Hartley, and Joshua Atkins—as well as a lawsuit, EPA finalized a ban on consumer uses of the paint strippers in 2019 after a two-year delay, but failed to ban commercial uses, leaving thousands of workers and bystanders at risk, and prompting another lawsuit from NRDC and several partner organizations. In short, Nancy Beck is a danger to all of us, aiming to secure a 7-years position running a consumer protection agency, after 3 years of dismantling public health protections from toxic chemicals.
It could take years to undo the damage Nancy Beck has caused to the country’s safeguards from dangerous chemicals. Much of that work will take place in the courts, where we will continue to challenge dangerous and illegal policies like EPA’s risk evaluation of methylene chloride. I’m glad that NRDC is part of the team that is taking on Nancy Beck, the Trump administration and the chemical industry to protect all people, and all communities from dangerous toxic chemicals.