Dry-clean solvent to be phased out

Times Staff Writer

California will become the first state to phase out the use of perchloroethylene, or perc, a chemical used by commercial dry cleaners that has been linked in studies to bladder, esophageal and other cancers.

After several hours of debate between environmentalists and owners of small, family-owned dry cleaners who fear being put out of business, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously Thursday to ban the purchase of new perc machines as of 2008 and to phase out the use of all perc by 2023.

The changes are expected to add about $1.50 to a $15 dry-cleaning bill as businesses pass along costs of new equipment that can range from $40,000 to $140,000, according to government and industry research.


“It’s very important to public health to move in the direction of eliminating perc from dry-cleaning facilities in California.... But a lot of people are going to be affected by what we do today. There has to be a sense of fairness,” said board member Barbara Riordan, who joined three other board members in rejecting a quicker phase-out requested by environmental groups. She also warned dry cleaners: “But when your perc machine goes down, you’re going to buy a new [non-perc] one.”

There are an estimated 4,900 dry cleaners statewide, and 70% are perc users, down from an estimated 85% in 2003, according to air board staff. The cost of phasing out perc is expected to cost about $41 million industrywide.

Representatives of dry-cleaning trade associations said members had “seen the handwriting on the wall” for the last few years in terms of possible tough new regulations and had begun to buy different types of machines even though they thought perc was superior for cleaning clothes and did not pose health hazards.

A dry-cleaning machine is somewhat similar to a combination home washing machine and dryer, with cleaning solvent, usually perc, injected through a perforated shell. Early professional cleaners used both wet-cleaning and petroleum-based products, but after perc was developed in the 1930s, it gained wide use as the best available, least flammable stain remover. Supporters say it also does not shrink clothes as wet cleaning does, though proponents of wet cleaning deny that.

An estimated 40% of the state’s dry cleaners already are subject to a 2020 deadline for phasing out perc, passed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2003. The agency’s regulation also bans relocation of perc facilities within 300 feet of a school but allows the purchase of perc machines until 2020. The tougher state ban on new purchases as of 2008 will apply within the agency’s jurisdiction, which includes Los Angeles, said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

Even proponents of a quicker phase-out said they were happy that the air board passed the rule.

“It’s an historic day. Perc has never been phased out in a state before, and that is an amazing thing. This is not as green as it should be, but it’s greener than it was before,” said Peter Sensheiser, director of the Pollution Control Center at Occidental College, who has tested and promoted wet cleaning alternative technology with state and federal grants.

He and several Southern California dry cleaners testified at the hearing that wet cleaning was actually cheaper than dry cleaning with perc in the long run because of sharply reduced electricity bills. They said wet cleaning also eliminated dry-cleaning odors.

More than 90% of dry cleaners in the AQMD’s area who have replaced machinery so far have opted for a hydrocarbon alternative, which uses a petroleum derivative in place of perc. But Sensheiser said that hydrocarbons increase smog and greenhouse gas emissions in a state plagued by air pollution, and that wet cleaning would do neither.

Air board member Dr. Henry Gong agreed, and called for a freeze on the purchase and use of machines using hydrocarbons pending further study.

“Otherwise we’re going to force dry cleaners through this again and again,” he said.

Other industry representatives said hydrocarbon methods clean clothes better, and said wet cleaning required more cleaning ingredients and new equipment. The board did not impose the freeze on purchases.

Several dry cleaners from the northern part of the state testified that being forced to replace perc equipment with any of the costly alternatives, especially too quickly, could bankrupt them.

But in the end, board members said that with an elevated risk of cancer to workers and nearby residents, it was important to get rid of a known toxic air and water contaminant.

Nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected a proposal in July to phase out all perc machines, instead phasing them out only at dry cleaners in residential buildings.

The EPA was sued by the Sierra Club, and the case is pending in federal court.

“Tightening the rules for dry cleaners is an important step in the agency’s comprehensive strategy to protect public health. EPA remains committed to the phase-out in residential buildings,” spokeswoman Jessica Emond said when asked about the lawsuit and the weaker federal regulations.