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EPA inaction means workers risk their lives using deadly paint strippers

“No one should have to risk their life to earn a paycheck.”

That’s what we said 18 months ago when EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would ban sales of deadly paint strippers to everyday consumers but still allow commercial use on the job. While we applauded the consumer use ban, we had to cry foul on the failure to protect workers.

Acute exposures to paint strippers containing the dangerous chemical methylene chloride have killed as many as 85 people since 1980. Two-thirds of those people have died on the job. Many methylene chloride-based paint and coating removers are used in areas with limited ventilation, such as bathrooms, allowing fumes to build up. This can cause a heart attack or asphyxiation. Methylene chloride turns into carbon monoxide in the body and can cut off the oxygen supply to the heart. At high doses, the chemical switches off the breathing center of the victim’s brain.

In addition to immediate death from acute exposure, many more workers suffer profound dangers to their health from ongoing exposure on the job. Chronic exposures to methylene chloride are associated with serious health impacts, including death, liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, reproductive toxicity, cognitive impairments, brain cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

In its recent “final risk evaluation” of methylene chloride, the EPA identified “unreasonable risks to workers, occupational non-users, consumers, and bystanders from methylene chloride exposure under 47 out of 53 conditions of use.”

So what is being done about this?

Good question. In early 2017, EPA proposed rules to ban paint strippers containing methylene chloride for both consumer and commercial uses. Our celebration was cut short when, later that year, the Trump Administration’s EPA put both rules on the backburner. In 2018, our campaign, working with partner groups like NRDC, prompted retailers with 30,000 stores to commit to stop selling the products for consumer and commercial uses.

At least four people have died using these dangerous paint strippers since EPA proposed the ban in 2017. Activism on the part of their families pushed EPA to finalize the ban on consumer uses.

Why now?

The real question is “Why wait?”

In June, the EPA concluded a three-year process to review the risk to human health and the environment of methylene chloride. As I note above, of the 53 uses that EPA evaluated, 47 were associated with unreasonable risk to human health, including commercial use of paint strippers containing methylene chloride. The recently reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires EPA to regulate chemical substances “to the extent necessary so that the chemical substance no longer presents [unreasonable risk].” When EPA issued the draft of its evaluation, again identifying paint strippers with methylene chloride in the workplace to be unreasonable risks, we sent a letter to Assistant Administrator Alex Dunn urging EPA to finish the job and finally protect workers from these dangerous, potentially lethal products.

In March, she turned us down, citing the “ongoing risk evaluation.”

What’s taking so long?

EPA’s initial risk assessment was issued in 2014, so it was not surprising that one of the first actions proposed under “new” TSCA when it was revised in 2016 was to ban the products. This is the kind of public health protection that we envisioned as we campaigned for TSCA reform. So, it’s not a lack of authority that has kept EPA from taking action on this danger to workers.

The EPA’s press release when it finalized the consumer ban said: “Acute (short-term) exposures to methylene chloride fumes can rapidly cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, and death due to nervous system depression. People have died after being incapacitated during paint and coating removal with methylene chloride. A variety of effective, less harmful substitutes are readily available for paint removal.”

EPA’s failure to include commercial use in its March 2019 final rule left tens of thousands of workers exposed to those same dangers.

What can you do?

EPA has the authority and the responsibility to protect those most vulnerable to dangerous chemicals. No one should have to risk their life to earn a paycheck.

Sign the petition to EPA to tell them to immediately ban the use of paint strippers with methylene chloride.