Paint stripper is nasty stuff. It’s made from methylene chloride, a lethal compound that is so toxic, it can kill within minutes of inhalation. As we reported here, there have been over 50 deaths reported from acute exposure, though it’s likely that many more related fatalities have occurred but gone unreported.
In 2017, EPA proposed banning methylene chloride as part of the bipartisan overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that occurred in 2016. TSCA was originally passed in 1976 to regulate the introduction of new or already existing chemicals. When the law was enacted, believe it or not, all existing chemicals – 62,000 of them – were considered safe to use and consequently “grandfathered” in, or, allowed to continue to be used. That actually meant that the public could continue to be exposed to chemicals that caused cancer, birth defects, and many other illnesses.
In subsequent years, only five chemicals were restricted under the law: PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos, and hexavalent chromium, the water-polluting, cancer-causing compound made famous in the award-winning movie Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts. The law might have “regulated” lethal chemicals, but it didn’t reduce our exposure to them.
The TSCA overhaul was finally passed in 2016 during the Obama Administration. However, when the Trump Administration took over, one of the chemicals TSCA took aim at was methylene chloride. After two years of consideration, the EPA under President Trump ended up issuing a “draft risk evaluation” that would protect consumers from methylene chloride in paint strippers, but still allow workers to be exposed to it on the job. This prospect alarmed both public health officials and environmental scientists.
By EPA’s own admission, workers exposed to methylene chloride could suffer “skin and lung sensitization, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, and development, reproductive, liver, and kidney toxicity.”
Nevertheless, “EPA is dramatically underestimating the magnitude of methylene chloride’s risks,” reports EDF Lead Senior Scientist Richard Denison in response to the agency’s action. Denison says that, while EPA acknowledges that methylene chloride “presents high enough risks to warrant regulation” under TSCA, the agency is “falsely assuming those exposures and risks are eliminated by actions it has taken or could take under other laws.”
Denison’s concern is that EPA is ignoring the over 4 million pounds of methylene chloride annually released to air, water and land. (The substance is considered a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act; EDF says the “fully health-protective value for methylene chloride in drinking water” should be set at zero.)
Another faulty assumption EPA is making is that workers will always wear fully effective personal protective equipment, such as respirators and gloves. In reality, workers may not have access to that equipment or it may not work properly and therefore be non-protective.
Denison also notes that EPA is failing to set reasonable risk levels for exposure to the chemical. EPA is arguing that methylene chloride should only be considered a cancer risk to workers if it exceeds a level of 1, in 10,000. That’s 100 times higher a risk than warrants regulation under TSCA to protect workers and others who are vulnerable, says Denison.
Since January 2019, more than 13,000 concerned Americans have sent over 39,000 messages to their Members of Congress demanding that EPA and the regulatory Office of Management and Budget finalize a ban that covers both consumer and most commercial uses. The public now has 60 days to comment on EPA’s new draft risk evaluation.
The Trump EPA’s integrity has been compromised. It has disbanded key scientific advisory groups, removed scientific information from its website, and favored industry-funded scientists. Yet we still rely on the EPA to protect our families from toxic chemicals. This negligence puts our health and our children’s future directly at risk.