When the federal government fails to take action on a major issue affecting the American public, the private sector has an opportunity and a responsibility to step in as part of its commitment to corporate social responsibility. That’s certainly the case when it comes to methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), two toxic chemicals commonly found in products at your local hardware, big box or automotive store.
Over the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to finalize an Obama-era rule to ban these chemicals in paint strippers, which was first proposed after bipartisan chemical reform legislation passed in 2016. This ban was proposed because the EPA’s own research show that these compounds pose unacceptable public health hazards. Methylene chloride has been linked to more than 60 deaths in the United States and NMP is a reproductive toxicant. Risks include cancer, miscarriage, harm to children’s brain development, and even sudden death. As a result, these chemicals poses significant liabilities to companies that continue to manufacture and sell them.
But over the past six weeks--while the EPA continues to drag its feet--the tide has begun to turn on these dangerous products as corporate America moves to ban their sale. To its credit, Lowe’s stepped up and became the first major U.S. retailer to ban the sale of toxic paint strippers. Its policy commitment has led to a domino effect, with The Home Depot and Sherwin-Williams quickly following suit. All three companies have committed to remove these harmful products from the shelves of their 8,500 total stores by year’s end.
This momentum is part of a growing trend emerging in the retail sector. In order to meet the rising consumer demand for safer products, companies are increasingly eliminating harmful chemicals as a key element of their corporate sustainability programs. More than ever before, retailers recognize that safeguarding their customers from dangerous chemicals is not only the right thing to do; there is a strong business case to do so. The sale of toxic chemicals such as deadly paint stripper products poses increasing reputational and legal liabilities to American retailers and brands due to the dangers they pose to customers’ lives. Meanwhile, consumers have become increasingly vocal in their demands for healthier and safer products, swiftly abandoning brands that don’t meet these needs.
Because it is heavier than air, methylene chloride can settle in a bathtub or other indoor space and expose users to high concentrations of the chemical in a short period of time. In February, 31-year-old Joshua Atkins died while refinishing his BMX bicycle with a paint stripper containing methylene chloride. At least three other people have died using these products since EPA’s ban was proposed. According to the agency, more than 60,000 U.S. workers and two million American consumers are exposed to methylene chloride and NMP annually. Subsequent injuries and deaths could damage a company’s reputation and brand and lead to expensive litigation.
Companies that sell harmful products could also find themselves the target of customer ire. This spring, more than 200,000 consumers nationwide signed petitions to Lowe’s urging the company to stop selling dangerous paint strippers, and activists picketed outside of stores during the company’s busy spring shopping season.
Committing to safer chemicals policies enables retailers and brands to enhance their reputation and enjoy stronger profits and growth. Consumers, particularly millennials, are certainly paying attention. For instance, Unilever recently revealed that its “sustainable living” brands grew nearly 50% faster than the rest of its business over the past year. As a result, the company is working to reduce the environmental footprint and increase the positive social impact of all of its brands.
Investors are paying attention as well. When revelations emerged in 2015 that elevated levels of formaldehyde were found in Lumber Liquidators’ wood flooring products, stock prices plummeted by 70% and the CEO was forced to resign. Corporations can expect to see either market growth or losses based on their approach to toxic chemicals.
Given the significant business liabilities and dire customer health risks posed by the manufacture and sale of methylene chloride and NMP paint strippers, American retailers and manufacturers should halt the sale of these toxic products in favor of safer, cost-effective alternatives. Walmart, AutoZone, Ace Hardware and other companies that continue to stock these dangerous products must close this gap in their corporate social responsibility policies once and for all. If the EPA won’t act, retailers must step up to protect their customers, and indeed, their reputations.
The time is now to set higher expectations for consumer safety and for corporate social responsibility. The establishment of safer chemical policies, particularly when it comes to methylene chloride and NMP, is not simply a short-term trend; it is a new paradigm in the retail sector. Lives, and company bottom lines, are at stake.
Image credit: Safer Chemicals, Safer Families