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How to Get Clothes Clean?

A plan to phase out use of a popular solvent has stirred protests from dry cleaners, mostly 'mom and pop' operations that depend on it.

October 21, 2002|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

It's called "perc" -- the smelly solvent your clothes soak in when you take them to the dry cleaner. Although it has been removing stains and keeping clothes crisp for nearly 50 years, air quality officials are about to send it the way of leaded gasoline with the nation's first proposed ban on the chemical.

The proposal has provoked a furious response from hundreds of cleaners and has consumers like Laura Boles of Northridge concerned about how it will affect her clothes, her pocketbook and the mom-and-pop Royalty Cleaners she frequents.

"Anything that's good for the environment, I'm in favor of, but I need to know what it's going to cost me," said Boles, hoisting a row of wrapped plastic shirts into her car. "But I don't want to put the little guys out of business. They have to make a living. It's got to be right for everyone in terms of the environment, small business and cost to the consumer."

Regulators and others give assurances that costs will be negligible and that there will be vast health benefits to workers and people living near dry cleaners. Each soy stain removed from a blouse or grease smudge lifted from a uniform releases a puff of toxic vapor, an assault on the environment that new technologies would remedy, they say.

Perchloroethylene, the colorless solvent used by 85% of dry cleaners in Southern California, poses an environmental threat to more than the atmosphere. It also is the No. 1 contaminant of ground water in Southern California, and some landlords won't renew leases for dry cleaners because of liability concerns that perc may seep into groundwater.

Years of cutting down on the pollution has reduced the airborne risk. But now Southern California air quality officials want to phase out perc altogether over nearly 20 years. Industry groups nationwide are closely watching the matter because, as is often the case, steps that California takes to clean its dirty skies are copied nationwide.

"People don't pay very much attention to the risk at dry cleaners. People understand they use some kind of solvent, but the general public is not aware dry cleaners are a problem," said Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Garments are immersed in a solvent bath of perc (pronounced "perk"), releasing about 850 tons of emissions annually, air quality officials said. Dry cleaners swear by the chemical, which can cut through grease, blood and other tough stains.

"It's fabulous. It has a combination of aggressively going after stains without damaging fabric," said Jon Meijer, vice president of the International Fabricare Institute, which represents cleaners worldwide.

But unlike smog-forming chemicals, perc is a concern because it has been linked to cancer of the kidney, liver and breast. It also affects the central nervous system and can be absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream. It can contaminate breast milk. One recent study that traced 1,700 dry-cleaner workers found that the risk of dying of cancer was 25% greater for them than for other workers, said Avima Ruder, senior research epidemiologist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath.

Dry cleaners emit about two-thirds of the perchloroethylene emissions across Los Angeles, Orange and much of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. A 2-year-old government study identifies perc as one of six major toxic air contaminants in the Southland. Fumes from dry cleaners that reach surrounding neighborhoods pose a cancer risk as much as eight times as great as is deemed acceptable by the air district.

Under the proposed regulation, dry cleaners would be prohibited from purchasing perchloroethylene machines after January 2003. In July 2004, all cleaning machines scheduled for replacement would have to switch to an alternative technology. By 2019, use of perchloroethylene would no longer be permitted at dry cleaners in the region.

It would be the longest lead time allowed for compliance under any Los Angeles-area air pollution control regulation. Officials said that would give the industry plenty of time to make the switch. They said switching is reasonable. There are many nontoxic, cost-effective alternatives to perc. The measure is one of the most ambitious anti-toxics regulations ever proposed for Southern California, although New York City and the Bay Area already have stringent controls on dry cleaners.

Action Delayed

The air district governing board is scheduled to consider the measure at its regular meeting on Nov. 1 in Diamond Bar. But action on the measure has been postponed many times this year because of vigorous opposition rooted in concerns both economic and cultural.

Air quality officials typically target major polluters, including oil refineries, manufacturers and automakers, but the dry-cleaning industry is overwhelmingly composed of small, family-run shops that see themselves as no match for powerful government bureaucrats.

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