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Workers Will Die Unless EPA Bans Solvent, Advocates Say

June 10, 2019, 10:00 AM

More laborers working with a toxic solvent will die while the EPA reconsiders the strategy to protect them, occupational physicians, advocates, and researchers predict.

At least three workers exposed to the paint stripping solvent, methylene chloride, died since 2017 when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule (RIN:2070–AK07) to ban consumer and most commercial uses, said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, a staff attorney working on labor issues at Earthjustice.

Separate research released in April showed that 83 people died from methylene chloride exposure over nearly four decades.

“Now, tragically we’ll see how many die” while the agency revisits its previous conclusion that workers faced unreasonable risks, and decides how it may reduce those risks, Kalmuss-Katz said June 5. He referred to a change the EPA made March 27 when it issued a final rule that banned consumer—but not workplace—uses of paint strippers made with the solvent.

Instead, the agency floated an idea (RIN:2070-AK48) to develop a training, certification, and limited access program to protect contractors, furniture strippers, antique restorers, and other workers who use methylene chloride to strip paints and other coatings. The EPA said the change in course was spurred by small businesses and other groups, who say they rely on the solvent.

Paint and coating removal products with methylene chloride will only be available to commercial users who are trained and certified to show they can use the chemical so that it doesn’t present unreasonable risks, the agency told Bloomberg Environment in a June 6 email.

While some businesses supported training, most comments on the agency’s training program, which were due May 28, rejected the training strategy and supported the agency’s originally proposed commercial ban.

83 Deaths

“No one should be poisoned at work—EPA needs to follow the science and move forward with a commercial ban,” said Veena Singla, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

Singla pointed to recent research she and other scientists displayed at the American College of Medical Toxicology meeting in April and included in comments submitted to the EPA. Eighty-three people died from methylene chloride exposure between 1980 to 2018, according to that research.

Most of those deaths, 87%, occurred on the job.

”Specifically, paint removers have been responsible for the most fatalities, 63%, of all methylene chloride product types,” the researchers said.

The Toxic Substances Control Act requires the agency to protect the public—including highly exposed individuals such as workers—from unreasonable risks that chemicals can pose, Earthjustice and other groups said in comments they submitted to EPA about its training proposal.

Alternatives ‘Totally Ineffective’

Others, however, said the strippers are needed and supported training.

Businesses must use strippers made with methylene chloride because paints and coatings have improved so much over the past 50 years that alternative formulations—ones without the solvent—are often “totally ineffective,” Benco Sales Inc., an industrial stripper manufacturer, told the EPA.

Banning methylene chloride strippers “would greatly reduce recyclability of durable products that are able to be refinished and reused, and would adversely affect small businesses,” the company said.

The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance Inc. supports the agency’s ban on consumer sales of methylene-based strippers and its idea to limit access to professional and commercial users who have been trained to use the products responsibly, said Faye Graul, the alliance’s executive director.

A methylene chloride worker-training program that the U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) developed could be a template for what the EPA could use, the alliance said.

U.K. Training Program

That program teaches workers about methylene chloride’s health risks, and how ensuring adequate ventilation or other actions can reduce risks, Dave Arden, from HSE’s Chemicals Regulation Division, said by email.

Workers also learn about available substitutes and non-chemical means to remove coatings, which can be less hazardous, he said. Only professional users who are in possession of an HSE certificate of competence can legally purchase and use methylene chloride-based paint strippers, he said.

The U.K. agency doesn’t have data on the effectiveness of its training program, Arden said.

But the Environmental Defense Fund, which backs a commercial ban, told the EPA that the U.K.'s program isn’t effective.

As evidence, it cited a criminal enforcement case HSE announced in January. The director of a U.K. company, Abel Ltd., was sentenced to 10 months in prison for selling methylene chloride paint strippers online without ensuring the purchasers were certified.

HSE didn’t immediately reply to a request to clarify whether that incident showed the program wasn’t working or showed it was, because the company director was sent to jail.

Thirty European countries have banned methylene chloride paint strippers, and their workers are using alternatives, the Environmental Defense Fund said.

Burns, Coma, Cancer, Death

Exposure to short-term, high concentrations of methylene chloride can cause slowed reaction times, impaired gait, coma, fluid buildup in the lungs, skin blistering or burns, seizures, and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chronic exposure is “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The consumer ban the EPA issued was the first TSCA regulation prohibiting some uses of a chemical that the agency had issued since 1991, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA overturned the agency’s 1989 rulemaking that would have banned multiple uses of asbestos.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com