In the struggle to balance environmental protection with prosperity and convenience, federal bureaucrats, businesses, and customers often have an adversarial relationship. Everyone can look at the smoggy skies of Beijing and agree that some limits on pollution are prudent. In America, the decision to phase out and outlaw lead in gasoline has been hailed as the federal government’s biggest public health victory. But, beyond that, the “right” balance gets foggy.
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certainly has a role to play in ensuring clean air and water, the agency’s habit of barring consumers from useful products carries a myriad of unintended consequences.
Under the Obama Administration, the EPA formulated rules banning a chemical known as methylene chloride in store products. The substance is well known as a fast-acting paint remover and can easily be obtained at home improvement stores across the country. The issue, however, lies with methylene chloride’s toxicity at low doses. Since the widespread introduction of the chemical, dozens of workers and home repairmen have been found dead or unconscious next to surfaces with half-peeled paint.
Most recently, the case of 21-year old Kevin Hartley made international headlines. The former football player was found slumped over in a bathtub he was refinishing with the help of a popular commercial paint stripper. The news led to criticism over the EPA’s hinting that the rule would be blocked, and likely contributed to the agency’s decision this month to move forward with the ban.
In justifying the ban, environmental groups and agency officials insisted that customers are too easily overwhelmed by the chemical’s deadly fumes. Yet, something smells fishy. According to EPA projections, 1.3 million US customers make use of methylene chloride products each and every year. An additional 32,000 workers breathe in the chemical as a part of their work. Despite these usage figures, a Center for Public Integrity report finds that, over the 1980-2014 period, most years went by with one or no fatalities from the chemical. And, since 2000, there has not been more than four fatalities in any given year.
If somebody decides to employ methylene chloride on a paint-stripping endeavor, there is a 99.99 percent chance of surviving the operation. If you are not focusing your energies on a bathtub or bathtub-shaped structure, the odds of death or impairment are even lower. According to a 2000-2011 analysis by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 75 percent of chemical deaths occurred amongst bathtub refurbishers. The shape of bathtubs encourages the accumulation of toxic vapors, preventing fumes from dispersing.
In light of the specialized dangers and low fatality rate, the EPA has many potential tools in its arsenal. They could, for instance, beef up warning label requirements, embark on an educational campaign, or choose a combination of options. But in banning the chemical, regulators are dooming workers and customers to inferior options that are not as efficient as methylene chloride. In many cases, successful paint stripping can make all the difference between a safe and unsafe house/office.
Lead paint, used extensively in residences and businesses for many decades, rapidly fell out of vogue after the substance was implicated in a host of health problems. Cognitive impairment and serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to old paint coating a building. Paint strippers containing methylene chloride are uniquely capable in banishing lead paint, and incomplete alternatives could well result in lead remaining affixed to older walls.
While these concerns remain untested, it is up to the EPA to explore any and all possibilities vis-à-vis the ban on methylene chloride. By conducting a thorough risk-risk tradeoff, the agency can remain true to its mission of balancing consumer choice with environmental protection. But impulsively banning a chemical with a death rate that is only a small rounding number is the wrong way for any government agency to proceed.
Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
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