Getting rid of dry cleaning solvent

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.

More like this

I think this is one of those issues where publicity makes a difference. I honestly can't see how the government can force a much quicker phaseout without directly pushing some fraction of cleaners out of business, but when the public starts seeing "carcinogen free" dry cleaners signs at roughly the same cost, it will put market pressure on the rest and encourage a faster change than any realistic government regulation.
(Perhaps what "green cleaners" are PCE free cleaners, but there hasn't been good advertising on what "green" means in this case or why anyone should care)

Most of the local dry cleaners (medium-sized city in Ontario, Canada) have already switched away from using perc. I think they've found that the "greener" cleaners get more business. CEPA regulates the use of perc, but it hasn't been banned yet.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 14 Apr 2009 #permalink

The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute is also urging dry cleaners to switch to alternative technologies. See for a description of their current program. This followed a State legislature-funded "5 chemicals" alternatives assessment which showed that there are less toxic alternatives to Perc for dry cleaning available. The grants program is and attempt to create a carrot, in the absence of a real stick. Check it out. It seems downright Canadian.

By Sam Dawes (not verified) on 14 Apr 2009 #permalink

Banning these substances will take years if it ever happens. If you want to protect yourself from cancer follow the Canadian Cancer Society recommendation and get yourself on vitamin D. take a look at for all the data that led to the Canadian recommendation

Excellent point bsci. It continues to amaze me that perc is still used in drycleaning when the body of evidence is stacked so high against it. It is frustrating that a chemical is "innocent until proven guilty" instead of the other way around. A ban on perc is way overdue.

If you really want to phase out perc, you need to persuade or compel garment manufacturers to remove "dry clean only" from labels. You also need to give financial aid to dry cleaners to switch over to wet cleaning or other technologies (most dry cleaners are small businesses that, at best, are just getting by). The SCAQMD had such a financial aid program, though I haven't looked in on it in awhile to see if it's still in operation. CARB's program may also have financial support. I was following this issue a couple of years back, but the pace is so glacially slow, I felt I could step away for awhile. My concern with perc is this: if we can't phase out something that's a slam-dunk, how are we going to deal with higher-risk and harder to substitute substances, such as BPA and brominated fire retardants?

i have been affected by perc i have severe head ear and eye problems i didnt get warned how toxic the chemical was when i went to work in a dry cleaners i have 3 children the youngest being 2 i now cant even care for them properly as im too ill how come cigs and alcohol come with a warning but this evil chemical hasnt this has taken my life away also robbed three children of their mother and the goverment make out they care about people but still let companys use dangerous chemicals on innocent people i wonder if they would let there children inhale perc or themselves i now realise how evil and dangerous the world is but only too late

please, let this ban be global.forget about gain or loss to perc-tuned dry cleaning machines.
Cancer is not a mean disease. ban perchloroethylene worldwide..infact, ban its production permanently..Nigeria you are hearing o.

By idowu bewaji (not verified) on 14 Apr 2012 #permalink