April 14, 2009 The Pump Handle 4Comment

by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

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.

4 thoughts on “Getting rid of dry cleaning solvent

  1. Perc is a bad chemical and we no longer use it in our plant, both to protect our employees and our customers, but like anything else it can be used responsibly. The problem is it hasn’t been used responsibly by a few bad apples in the industry. But one of the pit falls to making dry cleaners change machines is the massive expense to purchase a new machine($60,000 – $80,000 easy). It may sound like a great idea to force dry cleaners to stop using perc but when your dry cleaning prices increase a few local stores close their doors and another few dozen people in your city don’t have a job it may not look like such a good idea then. Any phase out will have to be done over years or it could be ugly for a few dry cleaners. On second thought less competition and a cleaner enviorment sounds like a win for my company.

  2. Whether or not perc should be phased out, your point about water being just as good is misinformed. If cleaners could have avoided buying the $60,000 machines and simply use water in the first place they certainly would have. Water has been around quite a long time. Perc was developed in middle of the last century to fill an important need, a need that wasn’t being filled by water.

  3. Darrell: Since you are in the industry, you know that water is used by some cleaners. The EPA has compared consumer satisfaction with wet and dry cleaning and consumers can’t tell the difference. Perc was developed long before the middle of the last century and applied to drycleaning many decades after its uses as a vermifuge (where it tended to kill some people) and as a metal degreaser in machine shops. It is a chlorinated solvent almost the same as trichloroethylene (a single chlorine replaces a hydrogen to get form one to the other) and TCE is rapidly being phased out because of its carcinogenic properties, which are similar to perc’s in toxicology and epidemiology. The reason so many drycleaners use perc is because that’s been the technology and they’ve been afraid to switch. It works for them. It just doesn’t work for public health.

  4. Your are right. I’ve been in the industry for over 21 years and I’ve met many dry cleaners. 100% of them use water to clean some garments, but none of them use water only. A solvent other than water must be used to clean a significant portion of garments. Water is simply not safe to use on all fabrics. I’m not saying that perc is not a hazardous chemical, my only point is that water cannot completely replace perc’s functionality.

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