USW Joins Allies in Suing EPA Over Toxic Chemical Review

The USW and its allies on July 16 filed a lawsuit seeking a review of a new risk evaluation of the chemical methylene chloride.

The petition, filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, argues that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not fulfill its obligations under the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act with regard to fully measuring the dangers associated with the chemical.

“Congress charged the EPA with determining whether chemicals pose an unreasonable risk to the public, workers and the environment given all the conditions of use,” said USW Secretary-Treasurer John Shinn, who heads the union’s chemical sector.

“But, we believe that the EPA did not take all of the relevant information into account when it assessed methylene chloride.”

The union and its allies flagged a number of concerns during the open comment period on the draft version of the risk evaluation last year.

Specifically, in comments last year, the USW argued that the EPA mistakenly assumed employers would provide particular types of personal protective equipment like respirators and protective gloves, which led to an understatement of workplace risk to methylene chloride exposure.

The comments further alleged that the EPA failed to consider reasonably available exposure data and workers' exposure outside the workplace. These concerns and others added to a serious under-assessment of how much exposure to methylene chloride workers receive.

The suit argues that the agency did not fix the problems with the draft risk evaluation and that its assessment of methylene chloride did not accurately review the risk of exposure to workers.

“Workplace hazards can only be controlled if they are accurately identified and measured,” said Shinn. “If the EPA bases its assessment on an incomplete analysis, the result will inherently be flawed.”

Methylene chloride is considered to be a potential occupational carcinogen. Health effects to such exposure may include harm to the central nervous system, liver and immune system, as well as irritation/burns and cancer.  This toxic chemical gives off fumes and at high doses of exposure, workers can be killed in as few as 10 minutes.

The toxic chemical is used in many ways, including as a solvent, propellent, processing aid or functional fluid in the manufacturing of other chemicals. It’s also used as a solvent in consumer and commercial products like sealants, automotive products, paint strippers and coating removers, as well as in the production of pharmaceuticals and polymers, metal cleaning and other items.

“Methylene chloride is the first chemical the EPA analyzed under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act, and the USW and its partners in the lawsuit want to ensure the agency is taking this responsibility seriously – in this case and in all future cases,” Shinn said. “We cannot allow incomplete assessments of toxic chemicals to place our members at unnecessary risk.”

The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Neighbors for Environmental Justice, Earthjustice and the New Jersey Work Environment Council joined the USW in filing the suit.

The 9thCircuit Court of Appeals will notify the USW and its co-petitioners when it will accept legal briefs and hold oral arguments in the case. This is anticipated to happen in the fall of 2020.

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