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Dry Cleaners at Center of Toxic Warning Issue : Environment: Users of possibly hazardous materials say AQMD-required notice causes unnecessary fears.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When she heard about the warning letter, Chun Ja Ahn started to worry. Written by regional clean air authorities, it told of cancer risks from the chemicals used to operate a dry-cleaning machine she wanted to buy for her shop. Under the regulators’ new policy, if Ahn wanted a permit, she would have to distribute the notice to nearby residents.

“What if they get upset?” she wondered aloud to her children in her native Korean. “What if they boycott us?”

Ahn’s concern was mirrored by that of the neighbors of the Norwalk shopping mall housing her establishment. Dry-cleaning solution “is currently being studied . . . as a possible cancer-causing air pollutant,” the notice read.

A petition drive sprang up; more than 200 signed. Calls of protest poured in to Norwalk City Hall. A meeting was held at a local elementary school.

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Yet the Ahns met all the conditions for their AQMD permit, which was issued last month. The risk was minimal, the agency assured the distressed neighbors.

To dry cleaners in the four-county region regulated by the AQMD, the uproar in Norwalk is a cautionary tale. Many cleaners fear a large-scale alienation of customers and prospective customers unless the risk-notice requirement is dropped.

The AQMD board is scheduled to consider the cleaners’ request Friday.

“We have to decide whether we want dry cleaning in Southern California or not,” said Katy Wolf, a dry cleaners’ consultant. If not, “we would have to go back to polyester leisure suits, that sort of thing.”

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Environmental activists see it a different way. “It’s not a dry-cleaning issue. The issue is, do people have a right to know about emissions that might injure their health?” said Tim Little, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air. “We say . . . you err on the side of caution.”

Jim Jenal, clean air program director of Citizens for a Better Environment, said he thinks an exemption for dry cleaners would be a “backdoor assault” on local and state plans to make many types of businesses inform the community about the toxic materials they spew into the air. Instead of shortening the public notice list by removing dry-cleaning solution, he favors expanding it from about 45 chemicals to nearly 200.

The staff of the state Air Resources Board has recommended that dry-cleaning solution--perchloroethylene, or “perc” for short--be declared an air toxic. The ARB is widely expected to go along with that suggestion at its October meeting.

However, said ARB spokesman Bill Sessa, “there’s a difference between whether it’s a cancer agent and whether it’s an unacceptable risk. Perc has a really low-level potency compared to other compounds we’ve already regulated,” such as benzene, chromium, vinyl chloride and asbestos.

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In Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the AQMD requires public notice from new or expanding businesses that will emit state-listed toxics, or those under review, at a rate that results in a cancer risk greater than one in 1 million.

Aside from gasoline stations, with their benzene vapors, “there’s generally not a lot of action on businesses opening up with the substances already regulated,” said AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly.

In late spring, however, AQMD planners realized that the state was studying perchloroethylene. That triggered the “under review” clause of the agency’s public-notice rule.

Consequently, Ahn’s business in Norwalk and four other dry cleaners in San Juan Capistrano, Diamond Bar, Tarzana and Sunland were required to distribute the notices. The AQMD received 30 letters of complaint about the Orange County cleaner, agency spokeswoman Paula Levy said. Sixteen other cleaners have since applied for permits and will have to deliver letters if nothing changes at Friday’s meeting.

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So far, the most controversy has swirled about Ahn’s Executive Cleaners. The family had been quietly operating the business for a year as a drop-off and pickup point. The owners sent their customers’ clothes to be cleaned at another facility in Cerritos, said Ahn’s daughter, Janie.

Ahn decided to install her own equipment. She and her daughter delivered the warnings to save postage. The response was swift.

One man nearby already was suffering from cancer. Another had owned a beauty parlor near a cleaner years before and she remembered the odor. A third was sensitive enough to perchloroethylene that she had taken to hanging her dry-cleaned clothes in the garage for several days until the fumes were aired out.

The AQMD had calculated that Ahn’s new 35-pound dry-cleaning machine would add a seven-in-1-million risk of cancer to the area. The neighbors, and the city officials they contacted, were confused about whether they should be frightened.

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Eventually, the AQMD calmed them all by telling them “the toxicity level was so small that it did not constitute a health hazard,” said Gregg Yamachika, Norwalk’s director of community development. “Based on their expertise, we issued a business license. So all they did was really stir up the neighborhood and create a furor for no reason.”

No boycott materialized and the Ahns are conducting business as usual.

Still, dry cleaners elsewhere watched and worried, especially because the AQMD plans to adopt a rule next year that would make existing businesses send out the notices.

“It fosters ill will in the surrounding community,” said Barry Gershenson, an owner of Sterling Cleaners in the Westwood area. “People are getting used to the signs in the windows (required by passage of Proposition 65, the California toxics initiative). But to add these letters, now, too. . . . “

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No dry cleaner, said Wolf, can possibly meet the cancer risk standard of one in 1 million, even using the best available technology and recycling solvent. So under current rules, all will eventually have to send letters.

“What response do we make? Do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t matter?” said environmentalist Jenal.

He suggested that the letters, already rewritten once, should add even more information about the range of cancer risks posed by industry in general as well as by the industry in question. “It lets the public focus on how the facility fits in with good corporate behavior,” Jenal said. “The facilities that have invested time and money are going to come out looking pretty good.”

Perhaps the notices should prompt changes in the dry-cleaning business, added Little of the Clean Air Coalition.

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“Maybe there should be a bunch of neighborhood drop-off points and centralized cleaning points, all in industrial areas,” he said. “There’d be disadvantages: more truck emissions and you couldn’t get same-day service. There’d be adjustments, but it might be worth it to get cleaner air where people live.”

In any case, he said, “it should be up to the people to decide. We live in a democracy. If they’re not going to get the information, they’re not going to be able to make the decision.”


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