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EPA bans a paint stripper chemical linked to deaths but leaves a loophole

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The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday restricted the use of a toxic chemical used in paint and coating strippers that has been linked to dozens of accidental deaths. But the agency stopped short of the total ban the Obama administration proposed and some health groups pushed for, instead allowing commercial operators to keep using the chemical so long as they are trained.

Alexandra Dunn, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said the agency has determined that methylene chloride — a controversial product that major home-improvement retailers, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, already have pulled from their shelves — presents ‘‘an unreasonable risk of injury.’’

‘‘We answered the call from many affected families, to ensure that no other family experiences the death of someone close to them due to this chemical,’’ Dunn told reporters in a conference call.

The agency will solicit comments over the next 60 days on whether to impose new federal training requirements on commercial operators, Dunn said, to determine whether it needs to limit access under those circumstances. That move drew immediate fire from public-health advocates and the family members of those who died after being exposed to its fumes.

Wendy Hartley, whose 21-year-old son, Kevin, died two years ago died while refinishing a bathtub even after being trained in how to apply the paint stripper, said the administration’s new rules fall short.

‘‘I am deeply disappointed that the EPA has decided to weaken its proposed ban on methylene chloride,’’ Hartley said in a statement. ‘‘Getting this deadly chemical out of consumers’ hands is a step in the right direction — a step that was started by retailers nationwide. Workers who use methylene chloride will now be left unprotected and at risk of health issues or death. I will continue my fight until the EPA does its job.’’

Hartley, who personally appealed last May to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to ban the chemical, has now joined with the advocacy groups Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Vermont Public Interest Research Group in suing EPA in the US District Court in Vermont.

However, Bryan Wynne — whose brother Drew died in October 2017 after applying paint stripper to the floor of his start-up coffee company in North Charleston, S.C. — in a phone interview described the move as a key step given the current anti-regulatory climate in Washington.

‘‘You take a win when you can get a win. And in this climate, a win is almost impossible,’’ said Wynne, who along with his parents, brother, wife, and son joined EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler for the signing of the rule. ‘‘It would be impossible for a person like my brother to procure it now.’’

The EPA proposed an outright ban on methylene chloride and another lethal solvent, NMP, on Jan. 19, 2017, the day before President Obama left office, saying they posed ‘‘unreasonable risks’’ to human health. Trump administration officials have repeatedly promised to remove methylene chloride from the market, while remaining silent on the fate of NMP.

The regulation EPA finalized Friday reflects a compromise with the Pentagon, which lobbied for a carveout given the military’s widespread use of paint strippers on bases across the globe. Under the Obama administration’s proposal, the Defense Department received a 10-year exemption on the grounds of national security.

Manufacturers of methylene chloride-based strippers, including the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, have argued that the product was safe as long as those using it had adequate training. In a statement Friday, the group said that it was sorry to see the chemical phased out of the consumer market but was ‘‘pleased’’ to see EPA would consider establishing a federal training and certification program.

‘‘Methylene chloride’s efficacy is unmatched, and it has been safely used for over sixty years,’’ the group said.

But public outrage over the chemical’s potential risks has escalated in recent years, as advocates shared their stories with lawmakers and regulators about family members who died from exposure to methylene chloride. A dozen people who specialized in refinishing bathtubs died between 2000 and 2011, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of N.M., who coauthored the chemical safety law that EPA used to limit methylene chloride, said the agency had ‘‘failed to live up to the letter and spirit’’ of the bipartisan law. South Carolina’s two Republican senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, had also pressed the administration to ban it.

‘‘EPA’s action today is a watered-down protection that apparently values industry profits at the expense of public health and safety — particularly for the hardworking people who will still be risking their lives with exposure to these deadly products,’’ Udall said.

Dunn said that if the agency decides that the chemical cannot be used safely in commercial operations, it could determine that it also poses an unreasonable risk to public health, ‘‘which could be banning it or restricting its use in some way.’’

While it could take more than eight months for methylene chlorine to be banned from retail sale to consumers, Dunn added that she expected it to be phased out much sooner than that since many stores have already stopped selling it. ‘‘We are absolutely pleased to see that happening,’’ she said.

Wynne said that while more needs to be done, White House officials made it clear that they would not discontinue the chemical’s use altogether in light of the Pentagon’s objections. ‘‘Ultimately there are powers beyond the EPA that are holding complete and total action,’’ he said.