EPA Bans Consumer Use of a Toxic Chemical Widely Used as a Paint Stripper but Known to Cause Cancer

April 30, 2024by Matthew Daly, Associated Press
EPA Bans Consumer Use of a Toxic Chemical Widely Used as a Paint Stripper but Known to Cause Cancer
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks during an event at Howard University on April 25, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it has finalized a ban on consumer uses of methylene chloride, a chemical that is widely used as a paint stripper but is known to cause liver cancer and other health problems.

The EPA said its action will protect Americans from health risks while allowing certain commercial uses to continue with robust worker protections.

The rule banning methylene chloride is the second risk management rule to be finalized by President Joe Biden’s administration under landmark 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The first was an action last month to ban asbestos, a carcinogen that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year but is still used in some chlorine bleach, brake pads and other products.

“Exposure to methylene chloride has devastated families across this country for too long, including some who saw loved ones go to work and never come home,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. The new rule , he said, “brings an end to unsafe methylene chloride practices and implements the strongest worker protections possible for the few remaining industrial uses, ensuring no one in this country is put in harm’s way by this dangerous chemical.”

Methylene chloride, also called dichloromethane, is a colorless liquid that emits a toxic vapor that has killed at least 88 workers since 1980, the EPA said. Long-term health effects include a variety of cancers, including liver cancer and lung cancer, and damage to the nervous, immune and reproductive systems.

The EPA rule would ban all consumer uses but allow certain “critical” uses in the military and industrial processing, with worker protections in place, said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Methylene chloride will continue to be allowed to make refrigerants as an alternative to other chemicals that produce greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change, Freedhoff said. It also will be allowed for use in electric vehicle batteries and for critical military functions.

“The uses we think can safely continue (all) happen in sophisticated industrial settings, and in some cases there are no real substitutes available,” Freedhoff said.

The chemical industry has argued that the EPA is overstating the risks of methylene chloride and that adequate protections have mitigated health risks.

The American Chemistry Council, the industry’s top lobbying group, called methylene chloride “an essential compound” used to make many products and goods Americans rely on every day, including paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing and metal cleaning and degreasing.

An EPA proposal last year could introduce “regulatory uncertainty and confusion” with existing exposure limits set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the group said.

The chemical council also said it was concerned that the EPA had not fully evaluated the rule’s impacts on the domestic supply chain and could end up prohibiting up to half of all end uses subject to regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

While the EPA banned one consumer use of methylene chloride in 2019, use of the chemical has remained widespread and continues to pose significant and sometimes fatal danger to workers, the agency said. The EPA’s final risk management rule requires companies to rapidly phase down manufacturing, processing and distribution of methylene chloride for all consumer uses and most industrial and commercial uses, including in home renovations.

Consumer use will be phased out within a year, and most industrial and commercial uses will be prohibited within two years.

Liz Hitchcock, director of a safer chemicals program for the advocacy group Toxic-Free Future, praised the new rule but added: “As glad as we are to see today’s rule banning all consumer and most commercial uses, we are concerned that limits to its scope will allow continued exposure for too many workers to methylene chloride’s dangerous and deadly effects.”

Wendy Hartley, whose son Kevin died from methylene chloride poisoning after refinishing a bathtub at work, called the new rule “a huge step that will protect vulnerable workers.”

Kevin Hartley, 21, of Tennessee, died in 2017. He was an organ donor, Wendy Hartley said, adding that because of the EPA’s actions, “Kevin’s death will continue to save lives.”

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