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EPA moves to ban toxic paint-stripper chemical for some — but not all — uses

Big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have already dropped it amid a public outcry over fatalities

Then-Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt met last year with families of men who had died while using products containing methylene chloride. “I take this issue very seriously,” he told lawmakers. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In the past year, major retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have pulled a toxic chemical used in paint strippers, methylene chloride, from their shelves. The families of those who have died after exposure to the substance have begged leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize a ban that the agency proposed on Jan. 19, 2017 — a day before President Barack Obama left office. And in May, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pledged to do just that.

But late last month, the EPA sent proposals to the Office of Management and Budget that would allow commercial operators to continue using the product as long as they underwent training, while banning its use by consumers. The two draft final rules, which are not yet public but are mentioned in the database of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, have sparked an outcry from congressional Democrats and public health advocates who had sought an outright ban on the chemical.

“Despite explicit assurances provided to my office that EPA would finalize a ban that protected both consumer and commercial users from this dangerous chemical, the Trump EPA appears to have failed to live up to those assurances,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment Committee. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that the final rule takes all needed steps to ban a chemical so dangerous that it has killed dozens of Americans, including trained professionals who were taking precautions on the job.”

The question on how to treat methylene chloride has vexed regulators since Donald Trump came into office. Used by professional contractors and do-it-yourself home improvement aficionados to remove paint, methylene chloride has been linked to dozens of deaths — including 12 people between 2000 and 2011 who specialized in refinishing bathtubs, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

One of the proposals is titled “Commercial Paint and Coating Removal Training, Certification and Limited Access Program,” but it provides no additional details on what such a program would entail. In a January 2017 proposal, the agency rejected the idea of imposing training or equipment requirements, such as the use of a respirator, given “the costs and challenges involved.” Broadly, the EPA said, the chemical posed an “unreasonable” health risk.

The EPA declined to comment on the proposals, citing the partial government shutdown.

“Due to a lapse in appropriations, the EPA Press Office will only be responding to inquiries related to the government shutdown or inquiries in the event of an environmental emergency imminently threatening the safety of human life or where necessary to protect certain property,” agency spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email.

One senior administration official, however, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the Defense Department had lobbied to carve out an exemption for the toxic chemical’s commercial use. The military, which would receive an exemption of at least 10 years under any such ban, is a large user of paint strippers.

The industry that produces the controversial chemical also has been outspoken in saying that the EPA should not ban it altogether.

One industry group, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, wrote last year that there are still valid uses for methylene chloride-based paint strippers.

“When used as directed, they are the best products for efficient and effective paint removal,” the group said in a statement as the EPA was contemplating how to proceed. “These paint strippers have been safely used by customers for more than 60 years. Methylene chloride-based paint strippers were developed decades ago in response to the fire and explosion risks posed by alternatives. It would be unfortunate if now methylene chloride-based paint strippers are replaced by substitutes that have issues with flammability, increased toxicity and efficacy.”

In a 2017 presentation by W.M. Barr, a large national producer of stripping products that contain the chemical, the company said that it continues to explore alternatives for methylene chloride but that most “have been failures in market.” It also underscored that it had sold tens of millions of its retail products with methylene chloride between 2007 and 2016 and that the company “is unaware of any consumer fatal incidents during this period.”

The company and the trade association noted that multiple fatalities had been linked to bathtub refinishing, where there is often a lack of adequate ventilation, and said they supported specific labeling to clearly warn against that kind of application.

Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the EPA’s proposed partial ban on the chemical a “real betrayal” to the families of loved ones who died while using it and that have pushed the EPA for a complete ban.

“The great majority of the deaths that we know about from this product involve workers, not individual consumers,” he said.

Even as proponents and critics of the proposed regulations debate its merits, there is little chance of it being finalized right away, given the partial government shutdown.

Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at the advocacy group Public Citizen, said that the typical interagency consultation required under federal law cannot take place, given that the EPA’s appropriations have lapsed. And no new proposals can be published in the Federal Register until the shutdown ends.