The Dow Chemical Co., in Midland, Mich. is shown in...

The Dow Chemical Co., in Midland, Mich. is shown in a July 1999 aerial file photo. Credit: AP

The Suffolk County Water Authority has sued Dow Chemical Co. and more than a dozen makers and sellers of a dry-cleaning compound and equipment, seeking damages for contamination of drinking water by the chemical, perchloroethelyne.

The suit charges that the chemical, also known as PCE, has infiltrated groundwater supplies across Suffolk County and damaged drinking water for its 1.1 million customers. The authority, which tests for and filters affected water to protect residents, is suing to recover its unspecified costs to investigate, test and remove PCE, as well as other damages.

In a statement, Dow Chemical, which noted it had not yet been served with the complaint, said it has "seen claims of this nature filed before and has been successful in defending the litigation."

It added, "We have good legal defenses and anticipate we will also prevail here."

The suit, filed Thursday, says Dow and the other companies were aware of the "typical" practice of "dumping PCE wastewater and muck into the public sewer systems, and the habitual problem with multiple leaks of PCE into the environment."

Much of the damage occurred at dry-cleaning shops that used the chemical and equipment over decades. Attorneys for the authority at the plaintiff's law firm Weitz Luxenberg didn't return numerous calls for comment.

Regulators say PCE may harm the liver, kidney and central nervous system, and increase the risk of cancer if ingested at levels that exceed federal standards of 5 parts per billion.

Patrick Halpin, board member and secretary of the authority, said an impetus for the suit was SWCA's large historical testing database to prove PCE contamination.

"We have probably the best lab in the country," he said. "Because of the evidence and the extreme testing we do, we're able to document this type of contamination better than just about anybody in the country."

Accordingly, Halpin emphasized there's no current threat of PCE being drunk by authority customers. "We rigorously test and where necessary, we filter" or even shut down contaminated wells.

 

A primer on 'PERC'

 

What it is: Tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, is a chemical solvent widely used to dry clean fabric and also as a metal degreaser. It is also known as perchloroethylene or PCE.

PERC was often tossed down drains or into sewer systems before federal laws imposed strict disposal requirements in the 1970s and 1980s. Improper disposal has polluted groundwater and soil across Long Island.

How it's used: Dry-cleaners use PERC and other solvents to remove soil, stains and grease without using water, which can damage certain fabrics and trims. Clothes are put into large machines to be washed in PERC and dried with heated air; these days, the dirty solvent is often filtered and recycled.

Exposure. People can be exposed to PERC by ingesting contaminated water. Inhalation is another route: workers at dry-cleaning facilities may be exposed to concentrations in indoor air.

Health effects: PERC is classified as a potential or likely human carcinogen by the EPA.

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