This story was updated at 3:17 p.m. with additional interviews.
In a surprise reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said today it would enact a rule targeting a widely available type of paint remover that has killed people for decades — including at least four since last year.
It’s unclear whether the regulation would ban retail sales of these products, as the EPA proposed in the final days of the Obama administration. The agency would not clarify when asked. Today’s announcement was a turnabout for the EPA: Officials there said several weeks ago that they did not anticipate they would take final action on the issue this year, but they have come under increasing pressure from families who recently lost relatives and from members of Congress.
The products, paint removers containing methylene chloride, can kill on the spot as the chemical’s fumes build up. A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation, co-published with Slate, found that more than 50 people died since 1980 using methylene chloride — often in paint strippers — for work or consumer projects. To this day, Americans can purchase cans of these products at home improvement stores and other retailers, risking asphyxiation or a heart attack if they use it in enclosed areas.
At least four men died while the agency was deciding whether to enact the proposed ban, dragging out the process rather than acting swiftly — part of a pattern of deregulatory decisions by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. But on Tuesday, families of two of the men killed in recent months got a sit-down meeting with Pruitt. The mother of a third joined them for meetings with multiple members of Congress or their staffs this week.
Brian Wynne, whose brother Drew, 31, died using the product to refinish a floor in his business’ walk-in refrigerator in October, said senators and congressmen from both parties are helping push for action. Wynne was among the group that talked to Pruitt at EPA headquarters.
“I want to see that they’re going to do what they proposed,” Wynne said. “I’m not seeing the word ‘ban’ out there, and I want to see a ban. But we remain cautiously optimistic.”
Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade group whose members include makers of methylene chloride, said she too has “absolutely no idea” what the EPA intends to do — or how quickly it will act.
“It’s very vague,” she said.
Graul and others in the industry have said that methylene chloride is more effective than the alternatives and should not be banned. The solvents alliance petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to approve stronger warning labels for the products instead — a move that occupational-safety experts have said is not sufficient to protect lives.