Acetone, a chemical used in several plastics manufacturing processes, has been removed from the Environmental Protection Agency's list of volatile organic compounds and its toxic release inventory. In the June 16 Federal Register, the EPA said the versatile industrial cleaner - traditionally used in processing unsaturated polyester resins and fiberglass-reinforced plastics - would be removed from the lists.
EPA regulates VOCs because they are suspected of causing ground-level ozone. Acetone was first placed on the toxic release inventory in 1987.
The ``delisting'' is a double-edged sword - applauded by companies that are heavy users, but lamented by firms that have developed alternatives to acetone.
Eastman Chemical Co., with acetone-intensive operations in Kingsport, Tenn., and Hoechst Celanese Corp., with similar operations in Rock Hill, S.C., and Narrows, Va., hailed the move. Both companies, which together use 2 billion pounds of acetone a year, submitted petitions and data three years ago claiming acetone did not contribute to ground-level ozone, and thus had a negligible photochemical reactivity.
But there is a downside for companies now free to use acetone with its new relaxed federal restriction. Fire departments and insurers remain wary of highly volatile acetone in any manufac-turing operation, as the low-flashpoint chemical remains on the federal EPA and transportation department's lists of hazardous substances.
And according to the president of Composites Services Corp. based in Cresskill, N.J., Joseph S. McDermott, state regulators may choose to enforce their own strict toxin emission standards without reference to the EPA's action.
On the other hand, the delisting action ``should help EPA with its pollution prevention activities,'' said one chemical industry observer. The delisting action will allow the agency to concentrate on regulating chemicals of more questionable environmental toxicity than acetone, which ranked fifth among all chemicals with the largest releases to air, water and land, with 126.6 million pounds in 1993, the EPA said.
Tony Shaw, manager of regulatory affairs for Hoechst Celanese in Washington, noted, ``We are pleased that EPA has delisted acetone from both the VOC and the TRI. We very clearly had good science.
``Acetone was placed arbitrarily on the toxic release inventory in the first place.'' Had acetone and many other chemicals on the list been subject to scientific review in the first place, acetone ``would not have been placed on the list today,'' Shaw said.
Fletcher Dean, an Eastman public affairs representative in Kingsport, said acetone amounted to 76 percent of the company's total output of 28.2 million pounds of TRI-listed chemicals in 1993.
``For Eastman, it [the delisting] helps clear up the misperception of what acetone was. We had the unfortunate situation of the amount of acetone contributing to the public view that we had a high aggregate toxic output,'' Dean said.
Eastman uses acetone in place of methyl chloroform as a solvent in the manufacture of cellulose ester fibers, primarily in textile fibers and in the production of filter tow - one of the ingredients in cigarette filters.
``I don't think the amount of acetone used by Eastman will increase, but it may by other companies,'' Dean said. ``Some companies, in the more urban areas, may be able to use'' acetone with its new nontoxin status because of that area's failure to meet EPA air-quality requirements.
Companies that may have switched to water-based acetone substitutes in their resin processing may find the recent ruling briefly irritating in light of their investment in alternate technology, said Sherwin Chasen, vice president of the industrial products division of Cook Composites and Polymers Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., a maker of gelcoats, resins, catalysts and cleaners.
``There are plenty of customers who are very upset because they went through the effort of changing processes'' from acetone eight years ago. ``But many realized how cost-effective the change was.'' For instance, the high evaporation rate of acetone makes it far less cost-effective than low-evaporation, water-based substitutes, he noted.
EPA first proposed removing acetone from the toxic release inventory in September 1994.