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EPA paint stripper rule will leave workers’ lives at risk

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will announce its final rule on methylene chloride in paint strippers. The Trump administration’s final rule will ban consumer uses and sales of these dangerous paint strippers while continuing to allow commercial sales to contractors and other professionals.

This half a loaf isn’t even crumbs for workers who don’t really have a choice whether to use the materials their employers choose on the job.

It’s been more than two years since EPA first proposed a ban on deadly paint strippers containing methylene chloride. In that time, at least four people have died from exposure to these products, an unknowable number of workers and bystanders have been exposed to the cancer-causing effects of methylene chloride, and thirteen national retailers have committed to stop selling these products at more than 30,000 stores.

Because of the Trump EPA’s ongoing failure to use the tools that it was given under the 2016 reform of the nation’s chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, it’s genuinely tempting to say that just preventing consumers from purchasing these dangerous products should be celebrated as “at least a partial victory.” After all, our Mind the Store campaign to convince retailers like Lowe’s and The Home Depot to stop selling these products to both consumers and professional contractors regardless of whether EPA acts deserves some credit for getting EPA Administrator Wheeler to even take this step.

Let’s resist that temptation and hold off on that victory lap. Families who may lose loved ones either from acute or long-term exposure on the job will take no comfort in knowing that consumers can’t buy these products but professionals can.

No one should have to risk their life to earn a paycheck. It is absolutely unacceptable that EPA is finalizing a rule that will do nothing to protect the tens of thousands of workers whose lives and health are in danger as they come in contact with methylene chloride on the job. Workers who use methylene chloride paint strippers regularly are at an increased risk of death and long-term health effects such as cancer. EPA’s final rule leaves both consumers and workers in jeopardy.

And let’s not pretend that consumers won’t be able to get the products that “the professionals use.” EPA noted this when the agency proposed the rule in 2017, saying: “(C)consumers can easily obtain products labeled for commercial use. Indeed, for many consumers, identifying a product as being for commercial use may imply greater efficacy. Coupled with the fact that many products identified as commercial or professional are readily obtainable in a variety of venues (e.g., the Internet, general retailers, and specialty stores, such as automotive stores), EPA does not find that this option would protect consumers.[1]

EPA officials have a mandate to protect all Americans from the dangers of toxic chemicals. In issuing this rule, they are failing to do their job. EPA should re-consider this dangerous decision. We will see them in court to hold them to the standards required under the Toxic Substances Control Act – that they restrict a chemical determined to present an “unreasonable risk of injury, applying such requirements as are necessary so that the chemical substance no longer presents such a risk.”

[1] 82 Fed. Reg. 7481 (Jan. 19, 2017).