Coming "Shortly": EPA’s Finalized Rulemaking on Methylene Chloride
EPA announced on May 10 that it intends to send its finalized methylene chloride rulemaking to the Office of Management and Budget “shortly,” a development that’s nearly five years in the making. Methylene chloride is a volatile organic compound that is used as a solvent in a wide range of industrial, commercial, and consumer-use applications. The agency’s risk assessment of the chemical’s paint-stripping use, published in August 2014, indicates health risks to both workers and consumers who use products containing methylene chloride. At the time, EPA estimated that more than 230,000 U.S. workers were exposed to methylene chloride from paint-stripping products containing the chemical. Following the publication of its risk assessment, EPA began considering a variety of potential voluntary and regulatory actions to address concerns regarding methylene chloride.
OSHA and NIOSH sought to warn employers and others of the hazards of methylene chloride-based stripping agents even earlier, in February 2013, when the agencies released a joint hazard alert for bathtub refinishers. OSHA characterizes methylene chloride exposure during bathtub refinishing as “extremely hazardous” because the chemical’s vapors can rapidly reach toxic levels and reduce oxygen levels through displacement in small and poorly ventilated spaces.
In November 2016, methylene chloride was named as one of the first 10 chemicals EPA would evaluate for potential risks to human health and the environment under the new Toxic Substances Control Act legislation. A couple months later, EPA proposed prohibiting the manufacture, import, processing, and distribution in commerce of methylene chloride and N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), a common alternative for methylene chloride, for consumer and most types of commercial paint and coating removal. By December 2017, EPA had moved the proposed rule to its list of “long-term actions,” which makes the agency’s recent announcement that the rule will be finalized “shortly” a bit of a surprise.
NMP is also one of the first 10 chemicals EPA is evaluating under the new TSCA legislation. The agency’s risk assessment of NMP, which was published in 2015, indicates that duration of use and a product’s concentration of NMP both drive risk associated with NMP use. According to EPA, short-term exposures (1–2 hours) to products containing 25 percent or less of NMP result in no risk. However, the agency identifies risks from acute and chronic exposures for those who use products containing higher concentrations of the chemical.
Other alternatives to methylene chloride—like 1-bromopropane, which also appeared on EPA’s list of the first 10 chemicals to evaluate under the new TSCA—have caused long-term health problems for workers who were exposed at high levels. In March 2013, The New York Timespublished an article detailing the health problems faced by cushion makers in the foam industry who breathed in 1-BP on the job. Four months later, OSHA and NIOSH issued a hazard alertwarning workers and employers of the dangers of occupational exposure to 1-BP, a solvent also known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB, which is used in degreasing, dry cleaning, spray adhesives, and aerosol solvents.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell recently came up with an alternative paint-stripping chemical combination that they say works just as well as methylene chloride. The research program, which is directed by Dr. Michael Ellenbecker, ScD, CIH, works to develop alternatives to highly toxic chemicals. Ellenbecker is the recipient of AIHA’s 2015 Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Award.
"Our substitute costs about the same, a little bit more than methylene chloride," Ellenbecker told CBS News in January 2018. "It works and it's safer."
EPA’s recent update makes no mention of its work on NMP or 1-BP, but what is significant is the agency’s decision to rely on its previous risk assessments of the paint-stripping uses of methylene chloride, which were developed under the previous presidential administration.
“While it will be interesting to see what changes, if any, EPA chooses to make in the proposed rule on the basis of public comments, of keen interest to all stakeholders will be the decisions that EPA makes and the approaches that it uses in making final this first Section 6(a) rule under new TSCA,” writes law firm Bergeson & Campbell, P.C. in The National Law Review.
Section 6 of TSCA, as amended by the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in June 2016, provides EPA with the authority to prohibit or limit the manufacture, processing, distribution in commerce, use, or disposal of a chemical if the agency evaluates the risk and concludes that the chemical presents an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.
AIHA members should keep an eye on The Synergist Weekly e-newsletter for updates regarding EPA’s upcoming methylene chloride rulemaking. The award-winning Synergist Weekly is delivered to members’ inboxes each Wednesday to keep readers apprised of industry news developments from government, regulatory, and nonprofit sources such as OSHA, NIOSH, CDC, EPA, and ISO.
The Synergist: “Risky Business: Stripped Down” (January 2018).
The Synergist: “By the Numbers: Methylene Chloride Fatalities” (November 2015).
The Synergist: “Whack-a-mole: The Problems with Chemical Substitution” (September 2013, AIHA member log-in required).