The Deadly Omission in EPA’s Methylene Chloride Rule

In October 2017, Drew Wynne, 31, succumbed to methylene chloride fumes while removing paint from the floors of his coffee company. This was almost a year after EPA proposed but refused to finalize a rule to ban methylene chloride paint strippers (“2017 rule”) which could have prevented his death. When EPA finalized their rule in March 2019, it was missing someone: Workers.

EPA’s 2019 rule only bans consumer uses of methylene chloride paint strippers, a major rollback of their 2017 rule, which banned consumer and the majority of commercial uses. The 2019 rule also removed the proposed ban on N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone (methylene chloride’s replacement). By excluding workers in their methylene chloride rule, EPA is ignoring the population whose health and livelihood is most affected by these products.

We’ve previously discussed methylene chloride, but as a refresher:

Methylene chloride, an ingredient used in chemical paint strippers, has been responsible for a disturbing, recurring pattern of deaths in workers and consumers. Chronic exposures to methylene chloride are associated with kidney toxicity, cognitive impairments, brain cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Paint and coating removal workers are consistently exposed to these products – EPA estimates more than 230,000 workers are exposed every year. In their 2014 Draft Risk Assessment, EPA found that methylene chloride paint strippers posed an unreasonable risk to workers, hence why EPA proposed the 2017 ban.

But instead of a ban, in March 2019, EPA released an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking requesting feedback on a training, certification, and/or limited access program (“proposed program”) for commercial uses of methylene chloride paint and coating removers. This is despite stating in their 2017 rule that:

EPA viewed the costs and challenges involved in regulating distributors and ensuring that only trained and certified commercial users are able to access these paint and coating removal products as a significant limitation for this approach.

In addition to the cost of the proposed program, personal protective equipment (PPE) to use methylene chloride is expensive and can still be permeated. Recommended attire can cost thousands of dollars and even then EPA found that workers using methylene chloride faced chronic cancer and health risks with the highest level of respiratory protection—singling out contractors and furniture refinishers as being particularly at risk.

So why is EPA still looking into a costly proposed program that may not cover all workers and may put consumers at risk? And why are they recommending costly personal protective equipment for workers that may not protect them from these harmful, sometimes fatal, chemicals?

That’s what we want to know.

We’ve submitted comments strongly urging EPA to finalize a rule prohibiting methylene chloride in all commercial settings. Removing methylene chloride paint strippers for consumers and workers is the only way to halt this trend of tragic and preventable deaths. In fact, NRDC, Earthjustice, and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (among others) have sued EPA over their exclusion of workers, claiming that the exclusion of commercial uses is contrary to the agency’s mandate under TSCA.

There are safe and effective alternatives to methylene chloride. These products have been effectively banned in the European Union since 2012, and consumers and businesses can easily transition to safer and still effective alternatives, like benzyl alcohol. In fact, in the face of delays from EPA, many retailers have already removed methylene chloride paint strippers from their shelves.

EPA has already found that methylene chloride paint strippers pose an unreasonable risk and they have already proposed a solution to ban these products. It both defies logic and the mandate of the law that EPA’s 2019 final rule restricted only consumer uses of methylene chloride, when the greatest risks are faced by workers.

In order to protect our workers and ourselves, EPA needs to ban methylene chloride paint and coating removers, for everyone.