If you have any of your clothes dry cleaned it’s more than likely you are being exposed to a chlorinated solvent called PCE (for perchloroethylene aka perc aka tetrachloroethylene/tetrachloroethene). You may be lucky enough to also get some in your drinking water, too (which means you are also breathing it and absorbing it through your skin) — because PCE is also one of the most prevalent groundwater contaminants in the US. It has some other nice properties: it causes cancer and birth defects and probably autoimmune disease. And it isn’t needed to dry clean clothes. Other than that, no problem. Under the heading of “elections matter”, though, consider this. After years of looking the other way, the Washington Post reports that EPA is moving — not rapidly, but moving — to make dry cleaners phase out PCE (perc):
The Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering whether to compel dry cleaners to phase out a cancer-causing chemical used in tens of thousands of operations nationwide, according to court documents filed late last week.
The issue of whether to ban perchloroethylene, a hazardous air pollutant linked to cancer and neurological damage, has been the source of a long-running fight between environmental groups and the federal government. In July 2006, the Bush administration ordered dry cleaners located in residential buildings to phase out the toxic solvent by 2020 but did not impose the same rules on the 28,000 other cleaners that do not operate in such mixed-use buildings. Instead, the EPA required these operators to use devices to detect leaks and to reduce emissions by conducting the wash and dry cycles in the same machine.
The Sierra Club challenged the rules in court, and on Friday the EPA asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to postpone arguments on the case so it could reconsider the regulations on policy and legal grounds.
EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said in an e-mail that the agency and the Justice Department made the request “so that the agency’s new leadership may review the rule.” He added that they asked the court to leave the 2006 rule in place while the review is under way. (Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post)
As is often the case, California is already there, ordering a perc phaseout by 2023. That’s fifteen years, longer than needed, but a lot better than “never.” There are a number of replacements for perc, including an exotic solvent that goes under the generic name, water. “Wet cleaning” (a contrast misnomer, because perc is also a liquid, just not water) is just as cost effective, and tests show that consumers can’t tell the difference between perc and water washed clothes. Wet methods are somewhat more labor intensive but not more expensive. Some dry cleaners also use a liquid carbon dioxide method.
Presumably California’s extended phaseout is to allow small dry cleaning shops to use up the lifetimes of their expensive new perc machines, designed to reduce exposure to workers and the environment. These new closed processes have reduced exposures significantly, but since we don’t need perc in the first place it is cheaper to lower exposures to zero by getting rid of perc in the first place.
The faster we phase out perc the faster we will be phasing out perc related cancer. Seems like a reason to hurry.