Some Dry Cleaners Told to Phase Out Toxic Solvent

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency tightened public health standards for dry cleaners yesterday, saying that cleaning shops in residential buildings must stop using a toxic solvent in their machines by 2020.

Administration officials said the new restrictions on perchloroethylene, or perc, a hazardous air pollutant, would reduce Americans' exposure to a chemical linked to cancer and neurological damage. But environmentalists said the rule did not go far enough, since it will take years to phase out machines using the harmful solvent.

About 28,000 dry cleaners across the country, many in major cities such as New York and Washington, use perc in the wash cycle to clean clothes. Of the total, 1,300 operate in residential buildings.

Several scientific studies have found a connection between dry cleaning employees' exposure to perc and impaired neurological function, along with a higher cancer risk. One study of two New York couples living above a dry cleaner on the Upper West Side found elevated levels of the chemical in their blood, urine and breast milk, as well as vision impairment linked to exposure.

"This is an important step in our comprehensive strategy to expand and enhance public health protections in the dry cleaning industry," said William Wehrum, EPA's acting assistant administrator for air and radiation. "The phaseout in residential buildings and improved protections are good for public health and good for the environment."

Judith Schreiber, chief scientist for the New York attorney general's Environmental Protection Bureau, said "there's good news and there's bad news" in the EPA's decision. She welcomed the ban on any new perc operations in residential buildings, but she questioned why the agency was allowing cleaners 14 years to get rid of their old machines and why they were allowing dry cleaners in buildings housing offices and day-care centers to meet a less stringent standard.

"An entire generation of newborns, infants and nursing mothers will be certain to be exposed to elevated perc levels in their homes," Schreiber said in an interview.

Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, noted that agency officials say Americans living above dry cleaners will still be exposed to the chemical for several years under the new regulations. In a fact sheet accompanying the rule, officials wrote that the rule would "gradually reduce risk from existing co-residential dry cleaners. However, risks from these co-residential facilities could remain significantly higher than EPA considers acceptable in some buildings until the phase-out of perchloroethylene machines is complete."

Agency officials wrote that the phaseout allows the government to protect the public health "without causing unacceptable adverse economic impact" on the industry.

Tong Luu, who runs Cleaner Express in Aspen, Colo., said he did not object to the new rules but believes that the government may eventually ban perc. Luu's machines capture all perc emissions before they enter the atmosphere, he said, but he has not found a substitute that cleans as well.

"It's not a bad thing, but sometimes you can't be asking for perfect, 100 percent" compliance, he said. Luu added he had to attend a one-day class in Colorado Springs after state inspectors found he did not lock the plastic container containing perc in back of his store.

The new rule also requires dry cleaners in nonresidential buildings to use devices to detect leaks and to reduce emissions by conducting the wash and dry cycles in the same machine. About 12 major dry cleaning operations would also have to install machines to capture emissions. New residential dry cleaners are not allowed to use perc, and existing ones must phase out the chemical as their older machines wear out.

Dry cleaners have reduced perc emissions from 25,000 tons to 10,000 tons a year over the past decade by replacing older dry cleaning machines and improving their machines' efficiency, the EPA said.

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