Reprinted with permission from DCReport
Wendy Hartley, whose son Kevin died at age 21 after using a toxic paint stripper, met with ex-EPA chief Scott Pruitt two years ago to urge him to ban a chemical in the stripper that has killed people since 1947.
But when the EPA evaluated the chemical, methylene chloride, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the agency decided the chemical didn't present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment under some conditions.
"Nothing short of a ban would be sufficient," said Hartley, who brought photos of her son and his death certificate to her meeting with Pruitt.
New York, the District of Columbia, and ten other states have sued the EPA and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in federal court seeking to overturn the EPA order. The case was filed in the Second Circuit but it was transferred to the Ninth Circuit, where the case merged with a lawsuit brought by a group of environmental organizations.
Each year tens of thousands of workers are exposed to methylene chloride in paint and coating removers on construction and contracting jobs. Workers like Kevin Hartley, a contractor from Ashland City, TN, who was stripping old finish from a bathtub, are especially vulnerable.
Self-employed workers or day laborers may not receive safety training and proper protective equipment. Hartley was using a respirator mask when he was overcome by the fumes.
The solvent kills in minutes and can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. It can cause heart attacks and turns into carbon monoxide in the body. The solvent only can be used safely with a respirator and special gloves and is especially dangerous in confined spaces such as bathrooms or basements.
Methylene chloride can remain at lethal levels for hours, endangering people in homes or nearby apartments, including children, caregivers and domestic workers.
At least 40 people died from 1976 to 2017 from exposure to paint and coating removers containing methylene chloride. The European Union banned most consumer and professional uses of the chemical in 2011.
Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbyist, worked to weaken a proposed ban on methylene chloride when she led the EPA's office of chemical safety. Trump nominated her to run the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but even the Republican-dominated Senate has balked at confirming her.
In 2016, former President Barack Obama signed an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act to try to prevent people from being killed or maimed by chemicals such as methylene chloride. The act, originally signed into law in 1976 by former President Gerald Ford, was so weak that the EPA couldn't ban cancer-causing asbestos.
The partial ban on methylene chloride is the first restriction on chemicals in 30 years under the part of the TSCA that governs existing chemicals.
Scientists Veena Singla, Patrice Sutton, and Tracey Woodruff slammed the Trump EPA chemical safety evaluation practices in the American Journal of Public Health.
"The TSCA method ignores significant scientific and internationally accepted rules and procedures for conducting systemic reviews, which will result in incomplete and biased chemical evaluations," they wrote.
Wendy Hartley has her son's last heartbeats shown on an EKG tattooed on her chest. She asked doctors to print out a tracing of them after they turned off his life support. She wears a heart-shaped locket around her neck that contains his ashes.