Walmart Drops Paint Strippers Made With Deadly Methylene Chloride

©. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Once again, Walmart is the new EPA.

Years ago, when Walmart pulled polycarbonate bottles from their shelves because of Bisphenol A (BPA), many (including this TreeHugger) complained about Walmart becoming the new EPA. I quoted Marc Gunther, then of Fortune Magazine:

When we lost trust in our regulators--as we seem to have lost faith in the FDA--we are left with mob rule, as manufacturers and retailers (i.e., Wal-Mart) come under pressure to stop making and selling perfectly legal products. Strong and predictable regulation, it seems to me, is better for business as well as for the rest of us than the chaos now surrounding BPA.

How the tables have turned, and how wrong I was. Now we have a mob of lobbyists and industry flacks running the EPA; according to the New York Times, the acting chief Andrew Wheeler was himself a lobbyist for "an electric utility, a uranium producer, and, most significantly, a coal magnate who paid Mr. Wheeler’s former lobbying firm more than $2.7 million over eight years."

Walmart, along with Lowes and Home Depot, has stepped into the breach and is now phasing out paint stripping products made with methylene chloride and N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP). Instead of waiting for the government to act, they say, "We will continue to work with suppliers, NGOs, academics, government and industry stakeholders as we advance our sustainable chemistry commitments."

The EPA suggested banning these chemicals in 2017 but the chemical industry objected, so the Trump administration put the ban on hold. Instead, the EPA stands by its “commonsense, balanced approach [that] carefully protects both public health and the environment while curbing unnecessary regulatory burdens that stifle economic growth for communities across the country.”

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families describes how Methelene chloride kills in the short term. It "turns into carbon monoxide in the body and can cut off the oxygen supply to the heart. At high doses the chemical switches off the breathing center of the victim’s brain". In the long term, they say that it causes "cognitive impairment, effects on attention, cancer of the liver, brain, and lung, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma."

PubChem, the open chemistry database at the National Institutes of Health, calls it "a possible mutagen and is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

It is hard to believe, looking back, that we thought that it would be better to wait for the government's EPA to take action; we have learned since that it doesn't until it is way too late. It is saddening that we have come to depend on companies like Home Depot and Walmart to do the right thing because the government agencies that are supposed to protect us would rather listen to the chemical industry. In 2011, when Walmart banned PBDE Fire Retardants, I complained again:

Who would have thought that we had to rely on the power of Walmart to regulate our health and safety...Nobody elected Walmart and they are not saints. How did it come to this, where Walmart makes these decisions, the government is impotent, and the chemical industry makes the rules?

I was wrong in 2008 and wrong again in 2011. We now know how it all came to this. So instead of complaining about Walmart being the new EPA and the new FDA, I will now thank it and praise it. It's a whole new world.