California is poised to become the first state to phase out the main chemical used by dry cleaners, following a unanimous vote by the state's Air Resources Board on Thursday to develop a plan to eliminate perchloroethylene -- or "perc."
Citing health risks to workers, nearby residents and businesses, the board took the action despite industry protests and a contrary recommendation by its own staff.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District enacted the first ban anywhere in the U.S. on perc in 2002, giving nearly 2,100 cleaners in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties until 2020 to phase out the chemical. That policy could well serve as a model for the rest of the state, a board spokesman said.
The state board sought to cushion the blow to the estimated 2,500 small, independent dry cleaners that will be affected by directing its staff to study the economic effects and possibly come up with a tax credit and financial incentives for replacing the costly equipment that makes use of the banned chemical during the next six to eight months.
"They made it very clear they don't want this to happen overnight
New cleaning machinery can cost between $40,000 and $140,000 depending on the type of technology used.
California regulators previously declared perc a known toxic air and water contaminant that can cause cancer and other health problems. The air board staff concluded that exposure to perc emissions at close range increases the risk of cancer in an additional 50 to 100 people per million.
"The board recognized this is the right thing to do when you have a highly toxic chemical, and you have alternatives already available in the marketplace," said Tim Carmichael, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, one of more than a dozen environmental groups that lobbied the board to ban the solvent.
But industry representatives disputed the risk assessments and said dry cleaners across the country had already reduced perc emissions between 70% and 80%.
Sandra Giarde of the California Cleaners Assn. said a 20-year study of thousands of dry cleaning employees in four Nordic countries showed "no increased risk.... California and the numbers they choose to use have regulators in the rest of the nation shaking their heads."
Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College, who is overseeing a state-funded pilot program to install "wet-cleaning" machines, said that process, which combines water and detergent with sophisticated reshaping and finishing equipment, was by far the safest alternative. He said many dry cleaners were already switching to it.
But Giarde and others said wet cleaning was far more expensive than using perc because it required several pieces of equipment and extensive worker retraining.
The air board staff had spent three years crafting proposals for tougher regulation of perc that would allow its continued use. Board members rejected that approach.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Giarde said.
"The staff approach was an actual balanced approach. But nothing air boards do surprises me anymore."