The Environmental Protection Agency signaled on Thursday it will follow through on an Obama-era proposal to ban paint strippers containing a toxic chemical – leaving lawmakers, environmental groups and the families of victims cautiously optimistic.
Since taking office, Pruitt has been laser-focused on undoing environmental and safety rules proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration. But the EPA’s announcement that it “intends to finalize” a proposed ban on methylene chloride would be the exception.
“Today’s announcement demonstrates EPA’s commitment to finalize the methylene chloride rule-making,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement.
The chemical, used by professional contractors and do-it-yourselfers to remove paint, has been linked to dozens of deaths – including 12 people between 2000 and 2011 who specialize in refinishing bathtubs, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
But advocates of the ban reserved full-throated cheers until the rule’s language is made public and submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which the EPA said will happen “shortly.”
Sarah Vogel, vice president for health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the nonprofit advocacy group was “encouraged” by the EPA’s decision but urged the agency to move quickly to formally block the access to the chemical.
“We and families across this country will be watching closely to make sure this administration actually delivers on today’s promise from Administrator Pruitt,” Vogel said. “We will delay any celebration until paint strippers containing this deadly chemical are actually off the market.”
The EPA first proposed banning the use of methylene chloride in paint and coating removal products in the waning days of Obama’s second term. A year earlier, Congress had granted the EPA new powers to restrict the use of that and other chemicals in an amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the nation’s main chemical safety law.
But in December, the Pruitt’s EPA indefinitely postponed bans on certain uses of methylene chloride and two other deadly chemicals often found in consumer products. For a time, it seemed like the ban was headed to the trash bin, along with many other Obama-era rules after President Trump’s election.
That delay in December kicked off an effort to salvage it.
Several Democratic lawmakers asked Pruitt about the chemical and urged him to ban it in a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill last month. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) invoked the deaths of Drew Wynne and Joshua Atkins, who both died from methylene chloride exposure. Pallone asked Pruitt if he had anything to say to those families given the lack of EPA action.
Pruitt didn’t directly address that question, but he made clear that the agency hadn’t abandoned its evaluation of the chemical’s safety. “There has been no decision at this time,” he said at the April 26 hearing.
That did little to satisfy Pallone. “Look, you say you’re going to do something, but these chemicals are still on the shelves, and they make a mockery of [chemical reform] legislation that this committee works so hard on,” Pallone said. “And it makes a mockery of EPA. You have the power immediately to get this chemical off the shelves. And you’re not doing it. And you should do it.”
Later that day, another Democrat from New York, Rep. Nita Lowey, accused Pruitt of “strategically starving programs that identify chemicals that could be harmful to children, while rolling back and delaying regulations for deadly chemicals.”
Pruitt replied that the agency was reviewing the comments of the proposal to ban the chemical. “I take this issue very seriously,” he said.
The lobbying effort also continued behind the scenes.
After the hearings, the Environmental Defense Fund contacted Pruitt’s office on behalf of the families of Wynne and Kevin Hartley, another man who died from methylene chloride exposure. The group asked for a meeting with the administrator.
“I wanted to use Kevin’s story to try to save more lives,” Wendy Hartley, Kevin’s mother, told The Washington Post in an interview. “We do not need any more lives lost due to this. And if I could tell Kevin’s story and get someone to listen to it and do something about, then I was willing to tell his story.”
Pruitt has met with few environmental groups throughout his tenure, more often conferring with industry representatives. But he agreed to meet with the mothers.
So this past Tuesday morning, Wendy Hartley, along with Cindy Wynne and her other son Brian Wynne, met Pruitt and several of his aides at his office in EPA headquarters.
The families brought with them photographs and the death certificates of the two men, and explained to Pruitt what happened to them.
Wynne, 31, was running a cold-brew coffee business in Charleston, S.C., when he died last year while stripping paint from the floor of a walk-in refrigerator using a product called Goof Off. Hartley, 21, was a trained contractor who died last year while refinishing a bathtub with White Lightning Low Odor Stripper near Nashville. Both men both were wearing respirators when they died.
Pruitt “was very attentive to us,” Cindy Wynne told The Post in an interview earlier this week before the EPA’s announcement. “He was somewhat surprised when we showed him the cans from Lowe’s,” where her son had purchased the paint stripper.
Her son, Brian, asked Pruitt if he agreed that methylene chloride was a problem. Pruitt responded, “I do.”
But when pressed on whether he would finalize the ban, the administrator did not make a commitment, the family members said.
“We all have the same sense that for a moment there, we felt like there was positive momentum,” Brian Wynne said. “And then that went out of the room pretty quickly when he was steadfast against the word ‘ban.’ ”
In an interview after the announcement Thursday, the brother said he was now “cautiously optimistic” that Pruitt would follow through.
“This is a positive development,” Brian Wynne said. “ It was a surprising one. We certainly didn’t see this coming in our meeting with Administrator Pruitt. But we’re certainly encouraged by this sign that he seems ready to take action.”
The EPA said the “meeting with the families was constructive.”
“It provided the families the opportunity to share with Administrator Pruitt the circumstances in each of their cases and the Administrator the opportunity to hear directly from them,” Wilcox said. “There was an exchange of ideas, and we appreciate EDF reaching out to request the meeting.”
Public health and environmental groups were also pleased but cautioned that more work needs to be done. Vogel urged the EPA to “move quickly to implement a ban, and that includes ensuring necessary administrative procedures are followed to guarantee a permanent ban and that these products are promptly removed from store shelves.”
The EPA said it will not redo a 2014 risk assessments that determined inhaling the paint-stripping fumes is dangerous. “The agency is not reevaluating the paint stripping uses of methylene chloride, but relying on its previous risk assessments and working diligently to ensure the safety of chemicals in the marketplace,” it said.
On Thursday, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the EPA’s announcement “welcome news, especially after the agency previously delayed finalization of this proposed ban indefinitely.”
“I am also encouraged that the agency is relying on previous risk assessments that clearly and scientifically showed just how threatening products containing methylene chloride could be to people’s health and safety,” Carper added in a statement. “However, just like a law doesn’t mean much if it is not enforced, intentions to finalize a ban on a deadly chemical don’t mean much if that chemical stays on the shelves.”
The American Chemistry Council, the main trade association for U.S. chemical companies, greeted the move with muted acceptance.
“EPA has authority to move ahead on specific conditions of use,” spokesman Jon Corley said in a statement. “ACC supports EPA’s completion of the risk management rule-making on methylene chloride and publication of a final rule.”
Methylene chloride can kill either through direct narcosis or through metabolization into carbon monoxide, which binds to hemoglobin in the blood and inhibits oxygen from moving around the body. Exposure to as little as six ounces can kill, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The heavier-than-air chemical can pool in places with poor ventilation, like bathrooms. “But now we’re seeing more and more cases in other types of confined spaces,” said Lindsay McCormick, a project manager for EDF’s health program.
In 1997, OSHA issued its own restriction on the chemical’s use in workplaces. But those standards did not cover regular consumers, who can buy methylene chloride products at most hardware stores.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the state Rep. Frank Pallone represents.