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Tina Casey headshot

Lowe's Sends A Strong Message On Hazardous Chemicals In Retail Products

By Tina Casey

A pattern is beginning to emerge among US companies with strong corporate social responsibility profiles: when government fails to lead, they are in a position to become agents for positive change. This is no window dressing. The results can reach into issues of deep concern, even where public consensus is absent. One good example is climate action. Another is gun safety. The home improvement retailer Lowe's recently spotlighted a somewhat less controversial but still significant area, reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in retail products.

US retailers are beginning to provide consumers with non-toxic alternatives to common household products that contain hazardous chemicals. Lowe's has stepped it up to the next level, by announcing the phase-out of certain products containing methylene chloride and NMP.

What EPA said about methylene chloride and NMP

Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a key move toward the banning of methylene chloride, a common ingredient in paint strippers as well as adhesives, aerosols, and many other products.

EPA previously found that paint strippers pose "some of the highest exposures" to methylene chloride, with risks to workers, consumers, bystanders and residents in homes where methylene chloride is used:

Effects of short-term (acute) exposures to workers and consumers, including bystanders, can result in harm to the central nervous system, or neurotoxicity. Effects of longer periods of exposure (chronic) for workers includes liver toxicity, liver cancer, and lung cancer.

As a result of these finding, on January 12, 2017 -- barely more than a week before President Obama left office -- EPA proposed a new rule banning methylene chloride in paint and coating removal consumer products. The ban would also apply to the majority of commercial paint and coating removal products, with furniture being among the allowed uses.

As for NMP, that's shorthand for N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), another common hazardous chemical. NMP is a solvent many industrial applications. It is also sued in consumer paint strippers and in auto care, home cleaning and hobby products.

In 2015, EPA identified risks to people with high exposure, especially "pregnant women and women of childbearing age." The agency noted that risks related to the hazardous chemical can be reduced through the use of protective equipment. However, that risk reduction only applies to short term users:

...gloves and respirators do not adequately reduce risks to people who use NMP for more than four hours per day on a single day or repeatedly over a succession of days.

On January 19, 2017 -- a matter of hours before President Trump was sworn into office -- EPA proposed two pathways for regulating NMP. One would ban its use in paint removers and require notifications when used in other products. The other pathway would focus on reducing risks to workers and consumers.

EPA also allowed for a national security exemption for NMP, which would also apply to methylene chloride.

What Lowe's did about hazardous chemicals

The public comment period for both proposals closed more than a year ago. By last December, reports circulated that EPA was shelving the proposals.

It seems that Lowe's is not waiting around for EPA -- or anyone else -- to take action on hazardous chemicals in paint removers. Last month the company released its 2017 sustainability report, which includes this item:

We have also committed to remove methylene chloride and NMP from all paint remover products, unless it is responsibly regulated.

In response to an email inquiry from Triple Pundit, Lowe's clarified its position:
We are committed to removing methylene chloride and NMP from our paint removal assortment by the end of the year. This decision impacts our global and US businesses.

We continue to listen and engage with many stakeholders on this important topic, including actively working with the EPA to identify ways to responsibly regulate the products.

We currently offer several paint remover alternatives without methylene chloride and have plans to bring more options to consumers by year-end.

We are also working with our vendors to encourage improved labeling on packaging to better communicate the proper use of these chemicals, along with product safety guides and instructions on Lowes.com.

Today recycling, tomorrow paint remover...

It's interesting to compare Lowe's 2017 sustainability report with its 2012 report, when the company focused on less contentious CSR areas like recycling and community engagement. Taking a stand on retail products can be a politically fraught move (just look what happened to lightbulbs), but so Lowe's decision on methylene chloride and NMP has not provoked a negative reaction.

To be clear, the new decision  applies only to paint removers. That is a somewhat narrow slice of the pie, but it is part of the compay's broader plans for phasing out high risk products including corded window blinds, certain pesticides and formaldehyde, among others.

Lowe's has also ramped up its effort to encourage consumers to purchase less toxic products. This approach leverages its 2016 acquisition of the Canadian chain RONA:

Our product portfolio varies across the U.S. and Canada because of differing customer needs and government regulations. Our RONA operations within Lowe’s Canada have had a strong system in place for approving eco-products for a number of years...We plan to expand the Lowe’s Canada platform for identifying eco-products globally and set product category targets in 2018 and 2019.

In a May 29 online article about its decision on paint removers, Lowe's firmly staked out its leadership position.

The company emphasized that it intends to continue working with EPA on reducing hazardous chemical risks, and it was also careful to acknowledge the progress that has been made.

Nevertheless, the article included a clear message* to policy makers from Lowe's chief customer officer Mike McDermott, who said, "We care deeply about the health and safety of our customers..."

Coincidentally or not, on June 1 EPA announced public comment on its plans for evaluating methylene chloride, NMP and eight other substances identified the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.

Photo: Lowe's by Mike Mozart/flickr.com.

*The full comment from Mr. McDermott is:

"We care deeply about the health and safety of our customers, and great progress is being made in the development of safer and more effective alternatives. As a home improvement leader, we recognize the need for viable paint removal products and remain committed to working closely with suppliers to further innovate in this category."
Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey