Recently the Environmental Protection Agency did an about face on a chemical that’s been linked to dozens of deaths since 1980. The agency announced it would move forward “shortly” with a rule on methylene chloride. Under the Obama administration, EPA proposed a ban on the chemical for certain uses, but Scott Pruitt’s EPA put that on hold. The reversal came a couple of days after administrator Pruitt met with families whose loved ones had died of exposure to methylene chloride.
This chemical is also one of 10 that the EPA has announced it’s evaluating to determine the risk to people’s health and the environment, which is a result of Congress updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) a couple of years ago.
On the latest episode of our podcast, Trump On Earth, we explore chemical regulation policy with Pat Rizzuto, a reporter for Bloomberg Environment, who has been covering the chemical beat for almost 20 years. Rizzuto says that consumers just don’t read labels. Or, if they do read them, they don’t understand how serious they can be. Here’s some of her conversation with Kara.
Kara Holsopple: Recently, an industry group lobbied the Consumer Product Safety Commission for a new labeling standard for products that contain methylene chloride. That’s sort of their solution to the health risks that are involved with this. Can you tell me more about that?
Pat Rizzuto: Methylene chloride-based paint strippers will need to have a new type of label that clearly warns about using them in tight spaces, and especially not to use them for bathtub refinishing. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission has said all along that it’s required labeling will not address all the hazards that the EPA identified in the proposed rule that it issued in the waning days of the Obama administration.
KH: EPA seems to actually have done a turnaround on methylene chloride. Late in the Obama administration, there was a proposal to ban its use in paint strippers. And that was sort of put on hold by the agency under the Trump administration. But this spring, EPA announced it would finalize the rule-making on methylene chloride. Where is EPA on this chemical now?
PR: The previous administration looked at a very few, very narrow uses [of methylene chloride] and said these pose enough risk to workers and consumers that were going to take some kind of action. And then the new administration came in and put them on hold. However, more people continued to die. And so organizations like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and members of Congress, rallied around the need for this rule to protect people’s lives.
The idea of environmental health regulations is that they’re supposed to prevent illnesses and deaths; you don’t wait for the bodies to drop which is, unfortunately, literally what happens in this case. And so with that extra pressure, they were able to get the families to meet with EPA administrator Pruitt. And he told members of Congress that once he had had that opportunity to revisit the rule, he would go forward with it. Now what that means, we don’t know yet. Since he made that announcement, nothing has moved to the critical office in the White House that reviews all federal rules before they can be issued. So we really don’t know what’s in this final proposal.
KH: The EPA under Scott Pruitt has been pretty upfront about trying to, or wanting to, reverse environmental regulations from the Obama era and before. So this decision about methylene chloride seems out of character. Is it an outlier?
PR: Well, it’s low hanging fruit. You have a chemical with consumer exposures that literally cause people to die. In terms of environmental protection, this is pretty easy to see the need for and to do.
KH: In 2016, Congress amended the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which actually allowed the Obama administration to propose this ban on methylene chloride in the first place. Can you just say a little bit about what TSCA is, and how did this update lead to the proposed ban on methylene chloride?
PR: The Toxic Substances Control Act is the primary regulation in the U.S. that controls industrial commercial and consumer chemicals. There are types of chemical uses that it doesn’t cover, for example, pesticides. But most of the chemicals that you and I would have in our environment are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The law was passed in 1976, but it did not have any mandate for the EPA to do anything about existing chemicals in commerce. So automatically some 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered and essentially presumed safe. It gave EPA the authority to look at those chemicals but it didn’t require it to.
So, 2016 was the end of a 10 year fervent discussion on updating the law. And it was a very unusual discussion because it brought members of industry, NGO, Republicans and Democrats all together. They agreed, we’ve got to fix this so that ordinary people can trust that the government is looking at the chemicals around us, and considering health as a component of whether they can be on the market or not. It was recognized that it was better for industry to have one regulatory system across the entire United States instead of state-by-state regulations.
KH: And under the updated TSCA, methylene chloride is one of 10 high priority chemicals to undergo what they call a risk evaluation.
PR: Before the TSCA law was in place, the agency felt it needed to do more about chemicals in commerce. So even under the old law, methylene chloride was one of the chemicals that the agency had chosen to examine. And what the new law said is, if you’ve already completed the risk assessment, even under the old law, then you can go forward with a rule-making if you found the chemical poses unreasonable risk. Methylene chloride was one of those. And so the agency was authorized to move forward and issue a final rule under the new chemicals law, and to propose a ban of some uses.
KH: You recently reported that EPA has released plans for how it will evaluate these 10 chemicals. Not surprisingly, it’s controversial. It ignores some of the chemicals’ uses, which is another way to say how we are exposed to that chemical. Overall, what do the plans reveal about how the agency is approaching these risk evaluations?
PR: The 10 chemicals that the agency is looking at, some are quite familiar, some aren’t: asbestos, some flame retardants, a pigment, and seven solvents. One of those solvents is methylene chloride. The 10 problem formulations is the blueprint — how we’re going to determine the risks of these chemicals. And the good thing [is] these 10 risk analysis plans are among the clearest I have ever read. You may agree or disagree with what choices [the agency is] making, but they are crystal clear.
Asbestos is the easiest example because it’s such a well-known carcinogen. There’s still a ton of asbestos present in lots of old buildings and pipes and ships. But [the EPA] aid that’s not a current ongoing use [so] it’s not going to look at that. Well, the firefighters and unions working for building demolishers, for example, feel ignored because they’re still being exposed to asbestos in those situations. It may not be new asbestos, but they’re still being exposed, at least potentially. And they want their risk to be recognized.
KH: Recently some reporters from CNN, the Associated Press, E&E News were barred from a chemical summit at EPA. Reporters from Politico, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets were allowed access. Is this something that you’ve seen covering EPA and the chemical industry?
PR: Are there meetings press can’t attend? Yes. A meeting like that? No. I’ve never experienced that. Here you’ve got an issue that’s across the country. And news organizations like the Associated Press, that feed news organizations throughout the country, and you exclude them? It made no sense to me.
When I first started on this beat, I could speak to EPA staff who really understood what they were doing, and how they reached conclusions that they were making. I learned so much from them. I can’t do that anymore.
KH: What does it mean to limit press access to these kind of events? What does it mean for getting the information out and doing your job to inform the public
PR: Well it means something very concrete. There’s a reason reporters want to be in the room where the discussions are actually taking place because you watch body language, you see what information people respond to. And if somebody makes an interesting point, and you want to follow up, you can dash across the room when there’s a break and talk to them. Being in a separate room, you can’t do that.
KH: Is there anything else that you’ve adjusted to in the last year or so covering this administration that has been different from previous administrations covering the chemical industry and chemical safety.
PR: I blame it on technology as opposed to any particular administration, but I am getting less and less access to people at EPA with each administration. I’ve felt when we went from Clinton to George W. Bush. Then we went to Obama, and I got even less access. And now I can’t talk to EPA staff at all. It’s so unfortunate because when I first started on this beat, I could speak to EPA staff who really understood what they were doing, and how they reached conclusions that they were making. I learned so much from them. I can’t do that anymore. All questions have to be submitted by e-mail, and e-mail is simply not a way to impart learning. And that’s very sad to watch that trend.
And I’m also hearing from people who work at EPA that they’re very, very scared. They’re scared to be seen talking to me in a meeting, even though I’ve known some of them for years. These are the people who have been there through multiple administrations. There’s a very different feel under this administration that they dare not speak up or they could lose their jobs.
>>LISTEN to the entire Trump on Earth episode to hear more about how the way EPA regulates chemicals is changing, including PFCs found in non-stick cookware and, increasingly, drinking water.
>>READ Pat Rizzuto’s meticulous reporting on the chemical industry
>>LEARN about the Toxic Substances Control Act