EPA’s Methylene Chloride Double-Cross
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EPA’s Methylene Chloride Double-Cross

Agency May Ban the Deadly Compound for Consumers But Let Businesses Continue Exposing Workers

As Confined Space readers know, the solvent Methylene Chloride has killed dozens of workers and consumers who used the material in enclosed spaces without realizing the extreme danger of the substance. MC is so hazardous that the Obama administration proposed to ban it. As might be expected, however, Trump’s EPA, under former administrator Scott Pruitt withdrew, the ban for further consideration, but after bi-partisan pressure from Congress and from the families of people killed by the solvent, Pruitt had second thoughts and last May committed to finalizing the ban. Meanwhile, numerous retailers, including LowesHome DepotWalMartSherwin WilliamsHome Hardware and True Value haven’t waited around and decided to stop selling the product as consumer and family groups have been urging.

Happy ending? Not so fast.  Scott Pruitt may be gone, but his spirit still haunts the EPA. On Dec. 18, EPA submitted a final Methylene Chloride rule to OMB for review, published last night on the OMB website. So far, so good.  And if you stop there,  you’re probably pleased.  But the same day, the agency submitted a separate “Pre-rule” announcement to OMB called “Methylene Chloride; Commercial Paint and Coating Removal Training, Certification and Limited Access Program ”

Parents, Groups Sue over EPA’s “Breach of Trust”

Kevin Hartley

Over the years, I’ve talked to far too many spouses, children and parents of workers killed on the job. And one thing they all have in common is that they want to do whatever they can to make sure that what happened to their loved one will not happen to anyone else.  So you can imagine the anger of the relatives of Kevin Hartley when EPA announced that it was backing off a total ban of methylene chloride (MC) last month after they had been promised by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.  Hartley died in 2017 while using methylene chloride to strip a bathtub. He was 21 years old.

Earlier this week, Hartley’s mother Wendy, along with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group filed a lawsuit to force EPA to live up to its promise to ban the deadly paint stripper after the EPA sent a final rule for White House review that would ban MC for regular consumers, but set up a separate rulemaking to develop a training and certification program for workers who use the hazardous chemical.

Methylene Chloride is a Killer

MC is so deadly that the Obama administration proposed to ban it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that seventeen workers have died from breathing methylene chloride vapors between 2000 and 2015. But that’s just workers. If you add in people who picked up a can of stripper from the local hardware store, the the EPA found 49 people in the United States died of exposure to methylene chloride during paint and coating removal between 1976 and 2016. And the Center for Public Integrity estimates that “at least 56 professionals and do-it-yourselfers have died suddenly after inhaling it since 1980.”  And the Washington Post reports that “Since the Obama administration originally proposed banning consumer and most commercial uses of the chemical, at least three people in addition to Kevin Hartley died of breathing in methylene chloride fumes, according to media reports.”

Despite all of that, Trump’s EPA, under former administrator Scott Pruitt, withdrew the ban for further consideration. Last year, Wendy Hartley — along with the family of Drew Wynne, who died last year stripping old paint of the floor of a warehouse he was renovating for his new business, and Joshua Atkins, a thirty-one-year-old who died in 2018 after using methylene chloride to strip the paint on his bike—met last year with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. After the meeting, EPA announced that it would “finalize the methylene chloride rulemaking” and that it would rely on the risk analyses used to propose the ban during the Obama administration instead of creating new analyses. But in December, EPA backtracked, leaving the relatives of methylene chloride victims, and the groups helping them, feeling betrayed.

“It’s very much a breach of trust,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in the Washington Post.  The families have tried unsuccessfully to meet with EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s nominee for permanent EPA Administrator who had his confirmation hearing yesterday.

Some Senators are also not happy: “After Scott Pruitt’s destructive tenure, I urged Andrew Wheeler to right the ship at @EPA,” tweeted Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “But on issue after issue, he has kept the agency hurdling down a dangerous path, putting public health at risk.”

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported last week that MC manufacturers have been lobbying against a ban and that “part of the delay may come from the fact that the Defense Department has lobbied to carve out an exemption for the toxic chemical’s commercial use,” although it’s not clear what impact the Defense Department had on the current proposal given that the military, a large user of paint strippers, would most likely already have received an exemption of at least 10 years under any such ban.

Meanwhile, activists have been taking the issue into their own hands by pressuring retailers to stop selling the chemical. Retailers such as LowesHome DepotWalMartSherwin WilliamsHome Hardware and True Value have decided to stop selling the product under pressure from consumer and family groups.

Wise to the Ways of Washington

Wendy Hartley is, unfortunately, becoming wise to the ways of Washington. According to the Post, “Hartley foresees a long court fight because of the influence of chemical makers. ‘I’m pretty sure that they’re going to drag this out,’ she said, ‘because that’s what the chemical industry wants.’”

And in Trump times, what the chemical industry wants, the chemical industry gets.

Judging from Wheeler’s confirmation hearing yesterday, things are not likely to get much better

“The fox in the henhouse analogies are endless here, but so is Wheeler’s ability to roll back vital safeguards to our air, water, and climate and put our environment and health at risk should he remain in the top spot at the EPA,” Matthew Gravatt, associate legislative director for the Sierra Club, wrote ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing. “Wheeler isn’t just friendly with corporate polluters; he’s been on their team for years.”



What’s going on here? The good folks at the Environmental Defense Fund have put these two announcements together and deduced that EPA is going to go ahead and ban MC for consumer use (the final rule), but start the entire regulatory process all over again for “commercial use”—which means workers—and instead of considering a ban, they are going to propose some kind of worker training and certification program.

EDF—and the families of Methylene Chloride victims—are not amused: For the families around the country who have lost loved ones to methylene chloride exposure, this is at best a half-step forward in getting these deadly paint strippers off the market. Rather than waiting for EPA to act, most major retailers have already removed or pledged to remove these products from their shelves.  But that doesn’t protect most workers, and now it looks like EPA won’t either.” said Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager at Environmental Defense Fund.

“Instead, EPA will relegate any limits on commercial uses to a separate, nebulous and lengthy process it is only just starting, which will defer for years or even deny protection to those most at-risk: workers,” McCormick added.

And Liz Hitchcock, Director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, said in a statement: “While we are pleased that the EPA is following the lead of the eleven retailers who have committed to removing these products from store shelves nationwide, we are extremely disappointed by indications that the measure will not protect thousands of workers whose lives and health are in danger as they come into contact with methylene chloride on the job. EPA should do its job and protect allAmericans from the dangers of methylene chloride.”

An EDF factsheet points out that the vast majority of reported deaths have occurred in the work setting (some of which you can read about here and here) and that certification programs are extremely complicated and costly to implement and difficult to enforce.

Although OSHA has a standard to protect workers against methylene chloride (which also causes cancer), workers continue to die and OSHA’s chemical standard-setting process is broken. The Toxic Substances Control Act gives the EPA the ability to address both occupational and consumer uses of methylene chloride, but under Trump, they’re ignoring the responsibility that Congress gave them.

So once again, workers are left in the dust as EPA again bends to the will of the chemical industry that seems to believe that if only workers would pay better attention to their training or read the labels well enough, they wouldn’t have to die.

January 18, 2019