Aerosols Give Big Business and Public Big Boom: Where is the Protection in the EPA?
The EPA is ignoring its own experts, as well as fire officials who are concerned about the potential dangers of explosions and/or fires caused by routine usage or storage of consumer aerosol products. Instead, the EPA is responding to pressure from the manufacturers of these products who are resistant to changing warning labels. Extrapolating from data the New York City Fire Department collected concerning the increase in fires and explosions caused by aerosols, an internal EPA memo estimated, . . ."when projected to the population of the U.S. at large, suggest an excess of 500 fires/explosions/year in this country."
Why does this issue matter?
People around the country use aerosol products everyday – in their bathroom, kitchen, basement, and garage. Unfortunately, the public was not fully informed of the dangers of using those products. POGO's report exposed the hazards of using aerosol products, specifically the use of bug bombs (a.k.a. total release foggers).
Table of Contents
The Project on Government Oversight is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that, for over thirteen years, has investigated and exposed waste and fraud in government spending. Our goal is to change the way the government works by revealing examples of systemic problems and offering possible solutions.
Our methods include networking with government investigators and auditors whose findings have received little attention, working with whistleblowers inside the system who risk retaliation for exposing waste and fraud themselves, and performing independent investigations into areas we suspect are problematic.
In the 1970's, scientists discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as propellants in aerosol cans (among other things) were a leading factor in the depletion of the ozone layer. As a result, hydrocarbon propellants (i.e. propane, butane, isobutane) and ether propellants replaced CFCs in aerosol products. The down side to this alternative, however, is that hydrocarbons are extremely flammable substances, and it appears that the public has not been sufficiently warned and educated about their safe use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significant evidence that the propellants can pose significant hazards in normal household use, yet they have not revealed this information to the public. It is up to the EPA to respond to consumer protection needs. Unfortunately it appears that they are reacting to pressure from aerosol manufacturers. The EPA should resist this pressure and change warning labels on many aerosol products, such as total release foggers and space-spray pesticides to warn consumers of the potential dangers.
The EPA is ignoring its own experts, as well as fire officials who are concerned about the potential dangers of explosions and/or fires caused by routine usage or storage of consumer aerosol products. Instead, the EPA is responding to pressure from the manufacturers of these products who are resistant to changing warning labels. Extrapolating from data the New York City Fire Department collected concerning the increase in fires and explosions caused by aerosols, an internal EPA memo estimated, . . ."when projected to the population of the U.S. at large, suggest an excess of 500 fires/explosions/year in this country." 1 (Appendix A)
In response to this danger and an increase in the number of accidents caused by aerosol products, in 1987 the EPA proposed new regulations to improve warning labels on them. But their proposed changes were opposed by the aerosol industry. In an EPA memo one official states, "Industry, through the CSMA [Chemical Specialties Manufactures Association], indicated that they would initiate a lawsuit against PR 87-8 [the EPA's recommended labeling requirements] if it were not rescinded." 2 (Appendix B) After much debate, the government succumbed to the legal threats and withdrew their proposal.
The business lobby has been able to cut off all warnings that may aid in decreasing the number of fires and explosions caused by aerosols products. An internal EPA memo states:
"Incident data from the CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] indicates that 60% of pesticide aerosols incidents result in explosions that caused injuries requiring medical attention. . . many incidents have resulted due to abuse of the aerosol containers; however, if the aerosol cans were obviously marked as 'Flammable' or 'Extremely Flammable' some of the abuse may be prevented."3 (Appendix C)
EPA officials also stated:
"In some reports of accidents involving these type of products, although the directions were read and followed to the letter, mishap due to fire or explosion still occurred. Among those who diligently read the label, such mishaps can be entirely prevented with proper warning.
As with most pesticide mishaps, a large portion occur due to misuse. A substantial reduction of mishaps could, nonetheless, be realized among this group of users. One is less likely to take chances with a product labeled 'EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE' than one which merely cautions against bursting." 4 (Appendix A)
The aerosol industry has pushed its weight around and has persuaded the EPA to go easy on them, even though incidents resulting in fires and explosions continue to pile-up. In another internal EPA memo, one official wrote:
"I believe the PR withdraw you have outlined would give the appearance of the Agency being in bed with the CSMA. They have presented no data, tried to bully us into compliance, and have succeeded. The CSMA does not regulate the pesticides industry, EPA does. EPA regulates taking into account all interested parties, not just industry." 5 (Appendix D)
Aerosols have become a fundamental method of bringing a variety of products in our every day life. The CSMA has released their 42nd Annual Aerosol Pressurized Products Survey 1992, estimating that 2.989 billion aerosol units were filled in 1992. This estimate is the highest in the history of the aerosol industry (6.2% higher than in 1991, 2.814 billion units filled).6 Products are grouped in different categories depending on their use: animal products (8 million units), miscellaneous (71 million units), food products (190 million units), insect sprays (200 million units), paints and finishes (380 million units), automotive and industrial (455 million units), household products (695 million units), and personal products (990 million units).7
Aerosols are used daily in bathrooms, kitchens, and garages, in most cases, the user has no knowledge concerning the propellants in the spray can. According to an article published in Aerosol Age magazine, "Well over half of all aerosols are marked 'FLAMMABLE' or 'EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE'. . .".8 The article goes on to state, "90% [of aerosol products] contain flammable propellants and over two out of three contain flammable or combustible concentrates."9 The increase in the number of fires and explosions has come with the increased use of the combustible hydrocarbon propellants.
The EPA, over the past decade, has considered changing the warning labels on aerosol cans, in order to improve the products safety record. The EPA began examining this issue in 1987, but the proposal was later tabled for evaluation and testing. In 1991 the EPA tried for a second time to change the regulations for these products, but again was persuaded that the new proposed regulations were unsuitable based on industry observations. In an effort to re-educate the public about the "hazardous composites" the industry has identified in aerosols, the EPA proposed new testing methods and warning labels. Nearly all aerosol products would carry the increased "EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE" warning label, a small percentage would continue to carry the updated "FLAMMABLE" label and a modest percentage would remain free of all warning labels.
After much delay the EPA is again considering changes in labeling and testing methods in notices that are soon to be released. This spring another solicitation of comments will be issued in the Federal Register. After a history of successful persuasion by the aerosol industry the EPA appears to be ready to introduce regulations that may cut down on the number of accidents caused by total release products (Appendix E). However, this change will only alter labeling on a fraction of aerosol products that require much stronger warning labels.
Aerosol containers are regulated by three different federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which regulates pesticide products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) which regulates non-pesticide products, and the Department of Transportation (DOT) which manages bulk shipments of aerosol containers.10 The DOT has become very effective in regulating this industry. Test methods and labeling seem to be a high priority at the DOT.11 But the EPA and the CPSC have not had the same attitude toward this issue. While the EPA is the major focus of this report, the CPSC virtually has ignored the same consumer safety concerns (i.e. proper testing methods and improved labeling). The EPA in the past has made some effort to look into this issue, while the CPSC has done little to solve the problems aerosols have caused. Ironically, the CPSC is the one federal agency that collects all of the incidence of fires and explosions resulting from aerosol containers and still does nothing to improve protection of the consumer. One must remember that it is the CPSC, as well as the EPA and the industry itself that are at fault for aerosol products accidents caused by the innocence of an uniformed consumer.
In the 1970's, scientists discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as propellants in aerosol cans (among other things) were a leading factor in the depletion of the ozone layer. As a result, hydrocarbon propellants (i.e. propane, butane, isobutane and ether propellants) replaced CFCs. The down side to this alternative, however, is that hydrocarbons are extremely flammable substances.
The EPA began looking into this issue in the mid-1980's. In 1987 the EPA released PR Notice 87-8, "SUBJECT: Label Improvement Program - Required Labeling for Products Containing Flammable Propellants".12 The Notice said:
"With increasing frequency, the Agency is receiving numerous complaints of fires and explosions resulting from the ignition of these flammable propellants in pesticide aerosols. In many instances the product is not labeled flammable. Fires and explosions have occurred even with aqueous solutions where the water in the product had allowed the product to 'pass' the flame extension test. (Such products are not required to have 'Flammable' on the label)."13
PR Notice 87-8 proposed to change the labeling of aerosol products by adding the statement "PHYSICAL OR CHEMICAL HAZARDS": to products that contain propane, butane, isobutane, and dimethyl ether as one or more of the propellants.
This statement was followed by an extended warning label that gave information about use, storage, pilot lights, electrical equipment, incineration and high temperatures. Manufacturers were given until July 31, 1988 to change labels on products released for shipment and July 31, 1989 for all products sold to the consumer.14
In response to the this initiative, industry dug in their heels. In an EPA memo one official states, "Industry, through the CSMA, indicated that they would initiate a lawsuit against PR 87-8 if it were not rescinded."15 (Appendix B) After much debate PR Notice 87-8 was withdrawn on December 10, 1987, less than ten months after it was published. The EPA released PR Notice 87-11 rescinding the former, "based on the lack of sufficient anecdotal accident information to define the scope of the problem with respect to flammability of aerosols containing the aforementioned propellants".16 The aerosol industry cast enough uncertainty into the EPA and the issue to terminate the proposed changes. The termination of the proposed labeling was to be followed by an extended period of data collection and research by the EPA and the industry.
During the 1990's the EPA began recording more and more incidents in which aerosol products, particularly total release insecticide foggers (TRIF), caused fires and explosions. The EPA became more aware of the problems associated with products containing hydrocarbons and all of the hazards these products could cause in storage, use, and disposal.
The EPA has recognized these dangers:
"The potential for flammability hazard manifests itself in three distinct phases of product life: shipment and storage, use, and disposal. A majority of the fires/explosions reported occur during product use with ignition after the liquid/gas separation. However, significant mishaps also occur with the flammability gas still in the can as with storage, in shipping, and with the unused portion of the product disposed by incineration. In all three phases of product life, the potential for fire and explosion is not warned against under current labeling requirements."17
In the February 20, 1991 issue of the Federal Register the EPA requested a solicitation of comments regarding proposals to change test methods (adopting the closed drum test), and revised precautionary language and autoignition hazards (static charges that may be sufficient to cause a can to discharge). The first proposal was to change testing methods from the flame extension test to the closed drum test. The closed drum test allows the entire product (including the propellant) to be discharged into a 55 gallon closed drum with a spark acting as the ignition source for any reaction that may take place. In one company's response to the closed drum test they state, the test will not add new data, "We already know propane will ignite."18 And even though propane, the propellant, is known to be hazardous, manufacturers have circumvented the testing system by modifying their products in ways that allow the aerosol to pass without a warning label or a reduced one.
The second proposed change in the Federal Register concerned warning labels as follows:
Products containing either hydrocarbon or ether propellants:
"PHYSICAL OR CHEMICAL HAZARDS"
For total release foggers and space-sprays aerosols: "EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. Do not use or store near fire, sparks, or heated surfaces. Do not use where ignition sources such as pilot lights or running electrical appliances are present unless the ignition sources may result in fire or explosion. Relight pilot lights and reactivate electrical equipment only after airing out is complete. Do not smoke in use area. Contents under pressure. Do not puncture or incinerate container. Exposure to temperatures above 130 F may cause bursting. Incinerating container may cause explosion."
For other aerosols:
"EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. Do not use or store near fire, sparks, or heated surfaces. Do not smoke while using. Contents under pressure. Do not puncture or incinerate container. Exposure to temperatures above 130 F may cause bursting. Incinerating container may cause explosion."19
The last change proposed in the 1991 notice concerned aerosols' "Autoignition Hazard".20 Hand held aerosols have different safety concerns when auto ignition is involved. Aerosols that are placed on the floor, such as total release foggers, can build a static charge to unacceptable levels.21 It is ironic that manufacturers control static electric charges and protect their workers with grounding equipment in their plants, yet they are arguing to allow the consumer to handle the same product unprotected.22 Business again was able to convince the EPA that this issue was not pertinent and that consumer misuse is the major cause of aerosol fires and explosions.
Currently, the EPA requires one of three warning labels on aerosol products:
"Extremely flammable. Contents under pressure. Keep away from fire, sparks, and heated surfaces. Do not puncture or incinerate container. Exposure to temperatures above 130 F may cause bursting."
"Flammable. Contents under pressure. Keep away from heat, sparks, and open flame. Do not puncture or incinerate container. Exposure to temperatures above 130 F may cause bursting."
"Contents under pressure. Do not use or store near heat or open flame. Do not puncture or incinerate container. Exposure to temperatures above 130 F may cause bursting."23
In comparing the current labels to the EPA's proposed changes one can observe the thorough instructions that the proposed changes would supply the consumer. Under these changes products that contain hazardous propellants will include signal wording to inform the consumer about those materials. The proposed change would also inform the consumer about the hazards of smoking, pilot lights, electric appliances, not properly ventilating a room, as well as the current instructions concerning punctures, incineration and temperatures above 130 F. Industry's hypotheses concerning changing warning labels has revolved around consumer confusion and further misuse, yet the current labeling system is very confusing in itself. The current "Extremely Flammable" label and "Flammable" label carry an extremely similar warning, both warn against puncture, incineration and temperatures above 130 F. The difference occurs in the "keep away from" section of the label; "Extremely Flammable" states keep away from fire, sparks and heated surfaces, and "Flammable" is followed by keep away from heat, sparks, and open flame.24 This is not much of a difference; fire and heated surfaces in the first and open flame and heat in the second. These labels are to protect the consumer against the hazards a given product may contain according to their respective test results. The current generic labeling that accompanies an aerosol is not sufficiently performing this function.
Why has the aerosol industry established such a front against the EPA and the consumer? A major reason for the aversion to the previously proposed changes revolves around profits. Changing testing methods and labeling will cost the industry in the immediate future due to the redesigning of aerosol products. Changes would alter the current way the production process occurs, and industry would have to shoulder the cost of the new labels. Old labeling would have to be replaced in a specified period of time to be in compliance with regulations, and avoid any penalties.
Industry's arguments against changing labels have had many different forms and have often verged on the ridiculous: On the subject of revised precautionary language DuPont Chemicals states, "EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE" warnings on aerosols will have "the potential to confuse consumers and may increase the chances they will misuse the products."25 A similar opinion was also expressed by Speer Products Inc., a manufacturer of aerosols, "We are greatly concerned that the conflicting messages sent to the consumer will result in confusion, distrust and further misuse."26 The manufacturers' association, CSMA, expressed concerns about the experts who would perform the closed drum test, "Obviously, in setting up such an event, very real dangers are presented as to the physical safety of the individual conducting the test."27 Accidents often occur because the public is unaware of the precautions that need to be taken (turn off pilot lights, unplugging appliances, or other steps that may be recommended on a product) and are ignorant to the dangers that may occur if the product is not used properly. It appears that manufacturers of these products are fully aware of the dangers an aerosol can pose and have taken the necessary precautions to prevent these dangers to their workers, however industry seems unwilling to take the same precautions with the general public.
What happens when the industry does incur problems with their products? An EPA memo describes a conversation the agency official had with an official from S.C. Johnson & Son, the manufacturers of Raid. According to the EPA official, after discussing testing methods the industry official stated, "his company does not need to worry about the effects of flammability products since its insurance company settles on any damages or injuries."28 (Appendix F) This statement was also verified by an internal EPA Office of Pesticide Programs memo, "Industry does not appear to be concerned as their insurance companies pay all claims."29
It would seem reasonable that the aerosol industry would want to provide a product that would better protect the consumer and not put themselves at legal risk. How many incidents of fires and/or explosions are enough to cause the industry to change its mind about the use of aerosol products? So far it appears that the industry relies on the excuse of "consumer misuse" as the primary reason for accidents caused by aerosol products instead of innocence. Industry should ask itself why this abuse occurs and how the misuse can be prevented. Instead the manufacturers keep trying to find possible ways to get around the system. According to EPA officials, ways of getting around the system are known, "With current approved testing methodology, a 'nonflammable' rating of the hydrocarbons and ethers can be achieved by proper engineering of the nozzle and the delivery system."30 Montford A. Johnsen, Technical Editor for Aerosol Age magazine, agrees with this statement, "The nature of the flame projection test invites the formulator to make modifications of product or package to pass it and thus avoid labeling the product as 'Flammable'."31 Yet consumer misuse is industry's answer to the problem, even though they have been notified of numerous accidents that have been the result of an innocent uninformed consumer.
Why would the aerosol manufacturers conduct business in this manner? Money. The propellants in question (propane, butane, isobutane and ethers) are some of the least expensive propellants on the market.32 Alternative propellants would cost more, which could eventually drive up the final cost to the consumer. However, EPA estimates concerning changes in labeling have ranged between $8,000 and $13,000 per product, and "since the cost of changing labels is a one-time cost and does not affect the variable cost of production, it is not likely that a significant portion of that cost would be passed on to consumers."33 This suggests industry would have to swallow the majority of the cost.
Though an opponent to the EPA's recommended changes, Johnsen found more accurate labels would not hurt sales. He wrote:
"Repeated consumer studies have demonstrated that the signal word 'FLAMMABLE' on a product label is the most that consumers read of the precautionary material, while in a store making a vital decision to purchase or not. The word is not a consumer 'turn off', but rather, for nearly all products, it is considered a useful caution. . . In one large test involving an insecticide, (which was technically non-flammable) a run of some 30,000 cans was made where the labels carried the signal word 'CAUTION,' the statement of hazard, 'FLAMMABLE,' and relevant precautionary statements. Statistically, these aerosols sold more rapidly than the un-marked counter-parts, and some consumers applauded the candor of the marketer when questioned in the stores following the purchase."34
Another interesting aspect of industry's fight to cut-off the EPA's proposed changes concerns former workers of the EPA who have gone through the revolving door and have shifted to jobs in the industry. In a move typical of many government agencies, top EPA officials have left the agency to join the manufacturers they were once regulating. In 1989, Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta wrote, ". . . the revolving door moves briskly at the EPA, as bureaucrats parlay inside knowledge into private sector jobs. Companies can gain a competitive edge by hiring a former insider-someone who, for example, can expedite approval for certain products."35 With this kind of movement it is not surprising the aerosol industry has so much influence over the EPA and that the government agency can completely ignore the internal advice from agents and outside experts.
The EPA is again taking the initiative to change warning labels. Recently the EPA released a notice suggesting changing labels, but only on total release products. The proposed rule states:
"EPA proposes to require additional precautionary labeling relating to the flammability of total release pesticides foggers. The EPA has found that total release foggers as they are currently labeled present an unreasonable risk to property and pesticide users from fires and explosions that can be caused by build-up of extremely flammable propellants."36 (Appendix E)
This type of aerosol accounted for 11% of the pesticide industry in 1987, according to Aerosol Age magazine, and has become "the product most often cited in these incidents."37 While the EPA admits that a bulk of incidents are caused by foggers or total release products, they conclude, "the number of fires produced from other aerosol uses is also significant."38
The EPA's notice will be followed by a solicitation of comments on the current testing methods utilized. They will again look at the effectiveness of the closed drum test as a more accurate observation into the flammability of the entire aerosol and not only the liquid portion of the product (which does not include the propellent). Current testing methods are not observed as being an accurate trial of the true explosive potential of an aerosol.
While the EPA has examined this issue for over 8 years, the aerosol industry has not accepted their recommendations. The EPA established it own task force to examine the increased reports of fires and explosions. The task force consisted of 14 members from different agencies; the EPA, the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Defense members. The findings of this group were expressed in the 1991 Federal Register but were not enacted, the proposed changes were met by industry's bitter resistance and defeated.
In their current effort the EPA is again trying to inform the consumer about the potential dangers aerosol products pose. The Agency has compared the "pros" and "cons" of many different alternatives but has not taken steps to initiate change. Industry is even divided on some of their views, with some manufacturers agreeing with some of the proposed changes for total release foggers and other products. Other aerosol makers oppose all of the proposed changes without any insight into how these products can be made safer for the user.
Hydrocarbon and ether propellants are not the only choices the industry has for aerosols, but they are some of the cheapest. Other options include HCFC 22, HCFC 22/HCFC 142b, HCFC22/CFC 11,HCFC 22/1,1,1-Trichloroethane.39 There are also many other alternatives still under development. After the EPA rescinded notice 87-8, the period following was to be a time of examination and observation. But how much has the aerosol industry really investigated this issue? During the period between 1980 to 1990, eighty-nine lawsuits were filed by persons who had aerosol containers explode. This does not include the additional forty lawsuits from the 1970's.40 This information, in addition to the over 400 accidents caused by aerosol products the CPSC has compiled, seems to be sufficient evidence to change the current system.41
Industry has looked down upon alternatives to the current testing and labeling process. Montford Johnsen has suggested two reasons for the failure:
"Industry counselors were reluctant to sanction any method that might be picked up by a government agency and developed into a regulation, perhaps with more restrictive interpretations of the test results, adding to the burden of flammability regulations already imposed. Secondly, almost no one would bother to use an unofficial (industry) method, especially if the result might act to characterize non-flammable or debatable (moot) aerosol adversely."42
The best alternative is one that can provide the safest results for the consumer. The patron who buys an aerosol product should not have to feel jeopardized from storage or usage of the commodity. The consumer should be given the most thorough explanation that will educate them about instructions, warnings and dangers in an effort to diminish consumer misuse. By providing a full interpretation of the contents and the explosion/fire potential, the consumer may become more sensitive to the product and its capabilities. For the last eight years the EPA has tried to re-educate the public about the safety risks that could save lives and property. We believe changes are needed before the accident databases overflow with victims. This process may cost aerosol manufactures a small amount at first, but in the long run it probably will save lives.
Appendix A: Memorandum from Herbert Harrison, Chief, Insecticide-Rodenticide Branch, to Douglas Campt, Director, Registration Division. "Options for Mitigating the Hazards of Flammable Propellents in Aerosol Pesticide Products."
Appendix C: Briefing Paper of the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the Subject of Flammability. Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
Appendix D: Withdrawl of PR Notice 87-8. United States Environmental Protection Agency on the Subject of Flammability, Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
Appendix F: Memorandum from Alexandre Tarsey, Head TSS/IRB/RD, to Edwin Tinsworth, Director, Registration Division. "Flammability Labeling."
1. Memorandum from Harrison, Herbert S. to Douglas D. Campt, "Option for Mitigating the Hazards of Flammable Propellants in Aerosol Pesticide Products," EPA Insecticide-Rodenticide Branch, OPP-30021, p. 2.
4. Memorandum from Harrison, Herbert S. to Douglas D. Campt "Option for Mitigating the Hazards of Flammable Propellants in Aerosol Pesticide Products," EPA Insecticide- Rodenticide Branch, OPP-30021, p. 3.
17. Memorandum from Harrison, Herbert S. to Douglas D. Campt "Option for Mitigating the Hazards of Flammable Propellants in Aerosol Pesticide Products," EPA Insecticide-Rodenticide Branch, OPP-30021, p. 3.
32. Memorandum from Harrison, Herbert S. to Douglas D. Campt "Option for Mitigating the Hazards of Flammable Propellants in Aerosol Pesticide Products," EPA Insecticide-Rodenticide Branch, OPP-30021, p. 2.