methylene chlorideCourtesy of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families

Over the years, I’ve talked to far too many spouses, children and parents of workers killed on the job. And one thing they all have in common is that they want do whatever they can to make sure that what happened to their loved one will not happen to anyone else.  So you can imagine the anger of the relatives of Kevin Hartley and when EPA announced that it was backing off a total ban of methylene chloride (MC) last month after they had been promised by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.  Hartley died in 2017 while using methylene chloride to strip a bathtub. He was 21 years old.

Earlier this week, Hartley’s mother Wendy, along with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group filed a lawsuit to force EPA to live up to its promise to ban the deadly paint stripper after the EPA sent a final rule for White House review that would ban MC for regular consumers, but set up a separate rulemaking to develop a training and certification program for workers who use the hazardous chemical.

Methylene Chloride is a Killer

methylene chloride
Kevin Hartley, Courtesy of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families

MC is so deadly that the Obama administration proposed to ban it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that seventeen workers have died from breathing methylene chloride vapors between 2000 and 2015. But that’s just workers. If you add in people who picked up a can of stripper from the local hardware store, the the EPA found 49 people in the United States died of exposure to methylene chloride during paint and coating removal between 1976 and 2016. And the Center for Public Integrity estimates that “at least 56 professionals and do-it-yourselfers have died suddenly after inhaling it since 1980.”  And the Washington Post reports that “Since the Obama administration originally proposed banning consumer and most commercial uses of the chemical, at least three people in addition to Kevin Hartley died of breathing in methylene chloride fumes, according to media reports.”

Despite all of that, Trump’s EPA, under former administrator Scott Pruitt, withdrew the ban for further consideration. Last year, Wendy Hartley — along with the family of Drew Wynne, who died last year stripping old paint of the floor of a warehouse he was renovating for his new business, and Joshua Atkins, a thirty-one-year-old who died in 2018 after using methylene chloride to strip the paint on his bike — met last year with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. After the meeting, EPA announced that it would “finalize the methylene chloride rulemaking” and that it would rely on the risk analyses used to propose the ban during the Obama administration instead of creating new analyses. But in December, EPA backtracked, leaving the relatives of methylene chloride victims, and the groups helping them, feeling betrayed.

In Trump times, what the chemical industry wants, the chemical industry gets.

“It’s very much a breach of trust,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in the Washington Post.  The families have tried unsuccessfully to meet with EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s nominee for permanent EPA Administrator who had his confirmation hearing yesterday.

Some Senators are also not happy:

“After Scott Pruitt’s destructive tenure, I urged Andrew Wheeler to right the ship at @EPA,” tweeted Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “But on issue after issue, he has kept the agency hurdling down a dangerous path, putting public health at risk.”

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported last week that MC manufacturers have been lobbying against a ban and that “part of the delay may come from the fact that the Defense Department has lobbied to carve out an exemption for the toxic chemical’s commercial use,” although it’s not clear what impact the Defense Department had on the current proposal given that the military, a large user of paint strippers, would most likely already have received an exemption of at least 10 years under any such ban.

Meanwhile activists have been taking the issue into their own hands by pressuring retailers to stop selling the chemical. Retailers such as LowesHome DepotWalMartSherwin WilliamsHome Hardware and True Value have decided to stop selling the product under pressure from consumer and family groups.

Wise to the Ways of Washington

Wendy Hartley is unfortunately becoming wise to the ways of Washington. According to the Post, “Hartley foresees a long court fight because of the influence of chemical makers. ‘I’m pretty sure that they’re going to drag this out,’ she said, ‘because that’s what the chemical industry wants.’”

And in Trump times, what the chemical industry wants, the chemical industry gets.

Judging from Wheeler’s confirmation hearing yesterday, things are not likely to get much better

“The fox in the hen house analogies are endless here, but so is Wheeler’s ability to roll back vital safeguards to our air, water, and climate and put our environment and health at risk should he remain in the top spot at the EPA,” Matthew Gravatt, associate legislative director for the Sierra Club, wrote ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing. “Wheeler isn’t just friendly with corporate polluters; he’s been on their team for years.”


More about Methylene Chloride here.


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