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EPA bans consumer sale of paint strippers tied to deaths

Detroit Free Press — By Aleanna Siacon Detroit Free Press

March 15-- A new federal ruling announced Friday bans the consumer sale of paint strippers containing methylene chloride-a chemical linked by safety advocates to dozens of deaths.

An official for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the ruling on an afternoon conference call with the media.

"Administrator (Andrew) Wheeler signed a final regulation that will prohibit the manufacture, including import, processing, and distribution of methylene chloride in all paint removers for consumer use," said Alexandra Dunn, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

The paint strippers have been manufactured for years and have been used by both professional tradesmen and do-it-yourselfers, but Friday's EPA ruling does not prohibit the chemical's use in workplaces.

But methylene chloride has come under fire, and health professionals have reported that acute exposure can be lethal. According to the national environmental health organization Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, at least 64 people have died from acute exposure to methylene chloride since 1980.

"Administrator Wheeler took today's action," Dunn said, "because acute fatalities have resulted from exposure to this chemical, in this application. Families have lost loved ones under tragic and heartbreaking circumstances. Short-term or acute exposures to methylene chloride fumes during paint and coating removal activities can rapidly cause dizziness, loss of consciousness and death due to nervous system depression."

The official rule on consumer access to methylene chloride announced Friday has been in the works for years, with safety advocates criticizing the agency for slow response.

In 2017, the agency announced a proposal to ban methylene chloride and proposed actions another toxic chemical and methylene chloride alternative, called NMP-that medical experts say could cause fetal toxicity and reproductive complications.

But, years lapsed without an official EPA ruling.

Instead, consumer safety, public health and environmental advocacy groups came together in efforts like the Mind the Store campaign, launched by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, to get retailers to voluntarily pull the chemicals off store shelves about two years ago.

Prior to Friday's announcement, 13 retailers made voluntary commitments to stop selling products containing methylene chloride, and the alternative, NMP, according to Mind the Store.

Dunn acknowledged that some retailers have already begun removing these products, but added that a federal sales prohibition will do even more to protect the public.

"We answered the call from many affected families to ensure that no other family experiences the death of someone close to them, from this chemical," Dunn said. "We now have an enforceable, national program that will prohibit retailers from distributing methylene chloride and methylene chloride containing products for paint and coating removal."

The sales prohibition on methylene chloride takes effect 180 days after the effective date of the ruling, which is 60 days from its publication in the federal register.

Dunn said the agency expects the rule to be published next week. But once publication day comes, retailers, distributors and manufacturers have 240 days to cease the sale paint strippers containing methylene chloride to consumers.

"Following the prohibition being in effect, I should clarify that violators could be subject to civil or criminal actions, and fines and possible imprisonment," she said

However, Friday's EPA ruling does not include regulations for use of the chemical in commercial settings by professionals.

"When it comes to the use of this chemical in commercial settings, today EPA will begin a process to gather public input for a future rule-making that could establish a training, certification and limited access program for methylene chloride, for commercial uses," she said.

"Based on the over 150,000 public comments that we received we made the decision that we made today, to take the ban on the consumer use and then to further reflect very expeditiously on the workplace uses."

Dunn added that if the EPA makes the determination the risks of methylene chloride cannot be managed in the workplace, the agency will pursue appropriate risk management decisions.

"Which could be banning it, or restricting its use in some way," she said.

Wendy Hartley of Tennessee, whose 21-year-old son Kevin died after using methylene chloride while at work, said in a statement shared in a Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families news release that she was disappointed in the EPA's decision not to enact a total ban on the chemicals.

"Getting this deadly chemical out of consumers' hands is a step in the right direction – a step that was started by retailers nationwide. Workers who use methylene chloride will now be left unprotected and at risk of health issues or death. I will continue my fight until the EPA does its job," Hartley said.

Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said in a statement that it is "absolutely unacceptable" for the EPA to finalize a rule that does not protect "thousands of workers."

"Earning a paycheck shouldn't mean risking your life," Hitchcock said.

Dunn said the agency is concerned about worker's exposure, but "this chemical has been used in the workplace for some time."

She added that the EPA wants "a full set of facts," and will be taking comments regarding a federally enforceable training program.

Friday's announced ban also does not included paint strippers containing NMP. That risk evaluation is still underway and expected to be completed in December, Dunn said.

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