By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
It’s getting hard to keep track of all the ways The Trump Administration’s EPA—led by coal, chemical, and oil industry lobbyists—is undermining the nation’s bedrock environmental laws and failing to protect the public as those laws require. But when it comes to contempt and disregard for the health of workers and the general public, nothing has been clearer than the Trump EPA’s foot-dragging and ultimate failure to protect the public from the toxic solvent methylene chloride (MC).
It is, however, illegal.
Last week, NRDC, Earthjustice, and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement filed a petition for review of EPA’s unlawful actions in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Vermont PIRG, and two mothers whose sons were killed by methylene chloride also filed a petition. We will urge the court to compel EPA to take the steps the law requires to protect workers, bystanders, and the general public from deadly methylene chloride.
The Agency concluded more than two years ago, based on its own extensive risk assessment, that the use of methylene chloride as a paint stripper and for coating removal posed an unreasonable risk to the public, including workers, consumers and those who happened to be nearby anyone using products containing the chemical. EPA classifies it as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” based on evidence in rodent studies showing it causes liver and lung tumors when inhaled, and liver tumors when rodents were exposed through drinking water. Methylene chloride is also acutely toxic—inhaling its fumes causes carbon monoxide to build up rapidly in the blood, which can lead to heart failure, loss of consciousness, coma, and death in extreme cases; it can quickly overcome and kill people using the substances or in the nearby vicinity. EPA estimated that 32,600 workers and 1.3 million do-it-yourself consumers use methylene chloride paint removers each year.
Based on the overwhelming body of evidence of the dangers posed by methylene chloride, the Obama EPA—on its last day in office—proposed a ban on both consumer and commercial uses (and sales) of methylene chloride, as well as a dangerous substitute chemical, n-methylpyrollidone (NMP). EPA made clear in its proposed rule that such a ban was necessary because even the use of personal protective equipment was inadequate to ensure protection, and, in any event, unprotected users and bystanders would still not be sufficiently protected from dangerous exposures. The Agency rejected the option of instituting a certification and training program for proper use of products containing methylene chloride, because it recognized that such an approach would ultimately not be effective, and in addition would be both costly and time-consuming.
Upon taking office however, President Trump appointed the ill-fated Scott Pruitt to be EPA Administrator, and tapped chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck to run EPA’s toxics office. One of the first acts of the new leadership was to shelve the proposed ban on methylene chloride and NMP. In the subsequent two years, at least four people died from exposure to methylene chloride, in addition to non-lethal poisonings and potential cancers and other diseases that will likely never be definitively tied to methylene chloride exposure.
Meanwhile, over the past year, thirteen major retailers—under pressure from the families of people killed on the job by methylene chloride, consumers, and advocacy groups including NRDC—took steps to eliminate the sale of paint stripper products containing methylene chloride and NMP from their shelves. Rather than taking its cue from the signals of the marketplace however, last month the Trump EPA instead adopted only half-measures that exempt commercial methylene chloride products and all NMP products. This final ban—already delayed by years—incorporates an already-rejected option of a certification and training program that will not protect workers. In making the announcement, the Trump EPA offered no basis—new information, new science, new analysis—to justify its reversal on the proposed commercial ban. Rather, it is a blatant stalling tactic, intended to protect profitable and deadly products instead of people.
The legacy of the Trump EPA and its political appointees will be one of slavish devotion to polluting industries and callous disregard for the health and safety of the public—as exemplified by the needless deaths that have already occurred—and those that are likely to occur—due to its refusal to ban commercial uses of methylene chloride. We hope that a parallel legacy will be successful legal challenges to reverse the Trump Administration’s terrible and dangerous policies.