Unequal Risk

Published — March 29, 2018 Updated — March 30, 2018 at 9:53 am ET

Members of Congress to EPA: Act now on deadly chemical

People keep dying while using paint strippers with methylene chloride. The EPA is slow-walking a proposed ban.


South Carolina’s two U.S. senators and one of its congressmen are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop delaying a decision to largely ban a toxic chemical in paint removers — calling the proposal an “urgent matter” after the death of a constituent last year.

The letter, sent to the EPA last week and made public today by consumer advocacy groups, was signed by U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, all Republicans. The lawmakers expressed alarm that more than 50 people have died since the 1980s while using the chemical methylene chloride, a fact uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity in a 2015 investigation.

More have died in the two-and-a-half years since then, including Drew Wynne, 31, a small business owner in Charleston, S.C.

“Given the apparent danger of this chemical, we urge the [EPA] Secretary to immediately and fully address the already identified risks of methylene chloride … and prevent any further harm from coming to the American public,” the three members of Congress said in the letter.

In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, the EPA said it would “respond to the letter through appropriate channels.” The agency did not comment further.

>> Read the full story: The EPA planned to ban a deadly paint-stripping chemical. Will it follow through?

The EPA spent years delving into the hazards of methylene chloride to determine whether restrictions were necessary. In mid-January 2017 — in the final days of the Obama administration — the agency proposed to ban sales of methylene chloride paint strippers to consumers and most other users.

But in December, while promoting its deregulatory efforts, the Trump administration EPA downgraded the would-be ban from “Proposed Rule” to “Long-term Action.” The agency said in an emailed statement to the Center for Public Integrity that officials “felt that more time was needed to consider how best to analyze and address any risks from these chemicals.”

EPA officials did not answer questions about how long this work would take or whether the agency still intended to finalize the proposal. The European Union, by contrast, pulled  methylene chloride paint strippers from general use in 2011.

Methylene chloride is an anesthetic. At high doses, it knocks victims out, stopping their breathing.

It can also trigger heart attacks in smokers and people with certain health conditions because the chemical turns into carbon monoxide in the body.

And research links it to some long-term health problems, including cancer.

Wynne died in October as he was refinishing a floor in his new business with a methylene chloride paint stripper he bought from Lowe’s, his family said.

Months before his death — in February of that year — Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a consumer advocacy group, sent Lowe’s a letter  warning of the products’ dangers and urging the home-improvement retailer to stop selling them.

Wynne’s parents joined with Safer Chemicals and other advocacy groups today to call on the EPA to act and to press Lowe’s to take methylene chloride products off its shelves.

“Our family suffered an unimaginable loss,” said his mother, Cindy Wynne. She said the family decided to focus on the effort because to them, the chemical presents exactly the sort of unreasonable risk from which the EPA is supposed to protect Americans.

Lowe’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company said in a recent email that it is “committed” to nearly doubling the number of methylene chloride-free paint strippers it sells by the end of the year. But it did not address whether it plans to phase out sales of products that contain the chemical.

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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