In October 2017, Drew Wynne was working at the production facility of his startup coffee company, Rip Tide Coffee, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Wynne wanted to remove old paint from a floor at the establishment, so he went to a local Lowe’s store and bought paint stripper. Tragically, Wynne was killed while working on the floor due to inhalation of the toxic methylene chloride vapors emitted from the paint stripper.
When Wynne’s family learned that methylene chloride had taken loved ones from at least 50 other families, they decided to advocate for change. The Wynne family joined with advocacy organizations, including Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to raise awareness.
While OSHA has a standard limiting occupational exposure to methylene chloride, it does not apply to all workers, including the self-employed. And although EPA announced a proposal to ban the manufacture, import, processing, and distribution of methylene chloride for consumer and most commercial paint and coating removal in January 2017,i EPA delayed the rule from moving forward shortly after the Trump administration took office. Had EPA moved forward on the proposed ban quickly, it could have been enacted before Drew Wynne’s death.
During the delay, at least three other people’s lives were cut short by methylene chloride paint strippers. One of those victims was Kevin Hartley, a 21-year-old who worked with his family’s company. He died on the job while refinishing a bathtub, despite wearing a mask to avoid inhaling the toxic vapors.
In mid-2018, the Wynne and Hartley families met with members of Congress and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to share their stories and urge them to move forward with the ban, noting their loved ones would still be alive if the toxic paint stripper were not readily available on store shelves. On May 10, 2018, EPA announced it would move forward “shortly” with the proposed ban. Months passed with no action. When EPA had not finalized a ban by January 14, 2019, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and the mothers of two victims joined to file a citizen suitii under TSCA seeking to compel the agency to take action immediately. In February 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (represented by Earthjustice), filed a separate suit against EPA, also seeking to compel the agency to move forward and ban the chemical.iii
On March 15, 2019, EPA announced a final rule to ban methylene chloride for consumer uses.iv Instead of moving forward with a ban on commercial uses, EPA chose to issue an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit public input on a potential rule to establish a training, certification, and limited access program, ultimately leaving both workers and consumers who obtain commercial products in harm’s way.
While advocating for EPA to take action, the families and advocates have simultaneously launched a highly successful market-based campaign. In 2018 and 2019, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ “Mind the Store” campaign, the Wynne’s, NRDC, and campaign partners across the country convinced 13 major retailers in North America to remove paint strippers containing methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) from store shelves.v They are continuing to watchdog these retailers to ensure they follow through on their promises.
i EPA Methylene Chloride and N-Methylpyrrolidone; Regulation of Certain Uses Under TSCA Section 6(a), 82 Fed. Reg. 7464 (proposed Jan. 19, 2017), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2017-01-19/pdf/2017-01222.pdf.
ii Notice of Intent to Sue from Brenden Cline & Daniel Rosenberg, Nat. Resources Defense Council, to Andrew Wheeler, Acting Admn’r, U.S. Envtl. Protection Agency (Dec. 6, 2018), https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-12/documents/2018-12-06_nrdc_notice_of_intent_to_sue_-_methylene_chloride_6a_rule_0.pdf; Complaint, Vermont Public Interest Research Group v. Andrew Wheeler (D. Vt. 2019) (No. 2:19-CV-9), https://saferchemicals.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/saferchemicals.org_vpirg_et_al_v_wheeler_complaint.pdf.
iii Complaint, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement v. EPA (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (No. 1:19-CV-01538), https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Methylene%20Chloride%20Complaint.pdf.
iv News Release, Envtl. Prot. Agency, EPA Bans Consumer Sales of Methylene Chloride Paint Removers, Protecting Public (Mar. 15, 2019), https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-bans-consumer-sales-methylene-chloride-paint-removers-protecting-public.
v Mike Schade & Sujatha Bergen, Buyer Beware: Dangerous Paint Strippers Still Sold at The Home Depot, AutoZone and Other Stores, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (Jan. 25, 2019), https://saferchemicals.org/2019/01/25/buyer-beware-dangerous-paint-strippers-still-sold-at-the-home-depot-autozone-and-other-stores/.