The weak federal stance on the safety of the toxic paint stripper doesn’t just pose a risk to the public—it could mean bad news for how we evaluate all toxic chemicals going forward.
In an effort to protect people’s health from the toxic chemical methylene chloride, NRDC—together with the Neighbors for Environmental Justice, New Jersey Work Environment Council, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and the United Steelworkers of America—asked a federal court to review the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final risk assessment of the chemical solvent, which is used in paint strippers and other products. Methylene chloride has been linked to at least 60 deaths.
“The EPA has underestimated the risks to people exposed to methylene chloride on the job and all but ignored risks to people who live near facilities that release it into the air, water, and soil,” says Selena Kyle, a senior attorney and managing litigator at NRDC. “When the EPA moves forward to regulate the chemical, it must consider these risks.”
Methylene chloride is the very first chemical to be reviewed by the EPA under the agency’s new Toxic Substances Control Act, which was amended in 2016 and requires that the federal government evaluate hazardous chemicals and determine whether they pose an unreasonable risk. As this serves as a first test of the new TSCA, “it sets the stage for future limits on this deadly chemical,” Kyle says.
The dangerous chemical has been associated with serious and sometimes fatal health impacts, including liver toxicity and cancer. Though the EPA issued a partial ban on methylene chloride for specific consumer uses in 2019—and big-name sellers, including Amazon, Walmart, and Lowe’s, have committed to stop selling products that contain it—workers and others remain vulnerable to exposure.
The EPA’s flimsy risk evaluation is the latest in a series of attempts by the Trump administration—with former chemical industry executive Nancy Beck playing a lead role at the agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention—to ignore the threats posed by toxic chemicals. In 2017, NRDC and a different set of partners sued the EPA after the agency tried to ignore harmful exposures by chemicals that are still in use but no longer manufactured, a move that the courts struck down.
“Under Nancy Beck, the Trump administration’s ‘toxics czar,’ EPA risk evaluations don’t comply with the law, and they don’t protect the public,” says Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at NRDC. “In addition, she has delayed and refused to finalize bans on methylene chloride in paint strippers, leaving thousands of workers and bystanders at risk. With Beck now up for chair of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, we will fight her nomination, just as we’re fighting the EPA’s failures in protecting people from dangerous chemicals.”