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Environment & Energy Report

Methylene Chloride Riskier Than EPA Estimates, Groups Say (1)

Dec. 3, 2019, 8:53 PMUpdated: Dec. 3, 2019, 9:34 PM

The widely used solvent methylene chloride poses an even greater chance of hurting people and the environment than the EPA found in an analysis that determined most uses of the chemical are too risky, environmental, health, and labor groups said Dec. 3.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s draft methylene chloride analysis examined about 138 ways factory floor workers, office staff, and do-it-yourself homeowners and their families could be exposed to the solvent as they carry out tasks like cleaning industrial equipment, producing medicines, or removing gunk from a car’s engine.

Of those 138 exposure scenarios, 113 posed too great a risk of injuring at least one or more groups of people, such as consumers or workers, the EPA’S draft evaluation said.

Yet the agency’s analysis underestimates the extent to which people are exposed to the chemical and the harm that could cause, representatives of groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice, and Safer Chemicals Healthy Families told an agency advisory committee critiquing the agency’s analysis.

Industry representatives, however, challenged the agency for possibly overestimating risks, particularly the potential that methylene chloride may cause cancer.

Affecting Companies

The conclusions the EPA eventually makes about methylene chloride’s risks could eventually affect companies that use the solvent to make foam, plastic, rubber, lubricants, greases, medicines, and other products, and those that use fluids containing the solvent such as the oil and gas drilling industry.

The conclusions also are important to prevent more people from dying, said Wendy Hartley, the mother of a young working man, Kevin Hartley, who died in 2017 from exposure to high concentrations of methylene chloride.

The Toxic Substances Control Act requires the agency to regulate a chemical that poses undo, or “unreasonable,” risks of injuring people or the environment.

Last month, EPA’s retail ban on the sale of methylene chloride paint strippers took effect. But it remains available for commercial use and in other consumer products including some aerosol brake cleaners, carbon removers, carburetor cleaners, coil cleaners, electronics cleaners, gasket removers, and engine cleaners.

Analysis to Be Completed Next Year

High, concentrated exposures to the chemical can be deadly in as little as 15 minutes, Stanley Barone, deputy director for the chemical office’s risk assessment division at EPA, told the EPA’s Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals.

Sufficient ventilation and other protective measures can prevent such deaths. However, methylene chloride also may cause other health problems including being likely to cause cancer, EPA’s analysis said.

The EPA’s risk analysis vastly underestimates the extent to which people are exposed to the chemical, the nonprofit groups told the agency’s advisers.

The agency’s analysis also failed to analyze the environmental and health damage the solvent can cause by helping deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Advisory committee members identified several other ways the agency’s analysis may underestimate environmental exposure, and therefore risks, the solvent poses.

The nine nonprofit, individual, and academic public comment-makers outnumbered the three industry representatives who spoke on behalf of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance and American Chemistry Council.

Those organizations’ comments focused primarily on ways the agency may inflate the solvent’s potential to cause cancer.

The advisory committee’s methylene chloride review continues through Dec. 4.

The EPA has said it will use information and perspectives offered by the committee and the public to refine its risk evaluation. TSCA requires the agency to issue a final analysis by June 22. It then must begin to craft regulations to control any unreasonable risks it has identified.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com