Anyone who has taken clothes to a dry cleaner has
experienced it. You can detect a slight (and sometimes even stronger) chemical
smell when you remove the clothes from the plastic wrapping. Many of us wonder:
Does that chemical smell indicate we're being exposed to something harmful?
In fact, the chemical we smell, perchloroethylene or perc, is bad for the
environment, a health hazard for those who work at dry cleaning facilities and
a problem for the communities where dry cleaners are located.
In New York, the problem is exacerbated because so many cleaners are
located below residences. A bitter fight took place a couple of years ago
between the chemical industry and cleaners against environmental critics and
politicians such as former city Public Advocate Mark Green, who championed the
idea of getting rid of the perc. Today, cleaners are required to install
expensive equipment to control the perc that escapes into the air.
In Los Angeles, the local air district recently voted for a lengthy
phase-out of perc that would allow cleaners to make a switch to an
environmentally preferable, non-toxic system rather than try to lessen the
impact through expensive control equipment as in New York. The air district
also provided an incentive fund for cleaners to make the switch.
What is contentious about this issue is that perc has long been the
favorite cleaning solvent for the vast majority of dry cleaners in New York, in
Los Angeles and around the country. Dry cleaners are typically small
neighborhood businesses. So while the amount of perc that escapes into the air
from a single dry cleaning plant might be small, the cumulative effect from the
several thousand cleaners in New York or Los Angeles becomes a major
environmental and health hazard for communities and cleaners alike.
As early as the 1970s, research began to indicate that perc could cause
cancer. Given those risks, a number of government agencies sought to minimize
exposure. As in the New York situation, expensive devices were required that
reduced some of the exposure but failed to eliminate the problem.
As the battles over perc dry cleaning have intensified, so has interest in
alternatives to perc. The first such alternative introduced was professional
wet cleaning - a non-toxic cleaning process that uses computer-controlled
washers and dryers, specially formulated detergents, and special pressing
Our research has indicated that this alternative, more environmentally
friendly system compares favorably to the perc-based system. It can clean the
clothes as well as the perc process, it can be as profitable (in fact some key
costs, including the up-front costs of the machines, are cheaper), and it has a
number of environmental and health benefits, starting with the elimination of
We also found that the cleaners who have made the switch from perc to
professional wet cleaning - many of them long-time dry cleaners - are strongly
satisfied with their switch, as they have been able to avoid dealing with
hazardous waste disposal charges, liability concerns and other regulations for
cleaners. Some also no longer suffer from dizziness, headaches, fatigue, runny
noses and heightened allergic reactions.
As evidence of the successful application of this one system - professional
wet cleaning - and the availability of several other alternatives has became
apparent, some policymakers are starting to explore the idea that instead of
imposing burdensome regulations, a win-win solution is available. The lessons
from Los Angeles for New York are instructive in that regard, especially given
New York's lengthy and protracted battles in regulating perc use.
First, it is clear that the problems with perc will not be easily addressed
by relying on expensive efforts to try to better control but not eliminate
perc use. One of the problems of such an approach is that cleaners have
difficulty in meeting those rules. When cleaners get occasionally monitored,
the non-compliance rates are extremely high, between 70 percent and 95 percent,
according to several studies.
Second, the switch to an alternative like wet cleaning becomes a lot more
palatable once several cleaners have made the switch. These new wet cleaners
can then serve as demonstration sites for other cleaners - and for policymakers
Third, a lengthy phaseout provides the best regulatory approach. Since dry
cleaning equipment lasts about 10 years (and about 14 years according to the
industry), as little as a 10 or even 15- year phase-out would allow a cleaner
to purchase the new equipment at the point in time when the old equipment had
run its course.
The cleaner wouldn't be penalized by having to give up a machine. In fact,
the up-front costs for the new non-toxic system would be cheaper - and so would
operating costs once the system was in place.
By the end of a phase-out, cleaners and their workers would no longer be
breathing perc fumes, community and customer exposure to perc would disappear,
and one of the largest sources of perc pollution would be eliminated.
An incentive program for cleaners to switch from perc to a non-toxic
alternative like wet cleaning could begin the process that leads to a phase
out. And such a transition is the best kind of change from a business, worker,
community and environmental perspective alike. It's chemical-free cleaning and
it's a win-win proposition for everyone.