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#431 - Dry Cleaning: Is Regulation Necessary, 01-Mar-1995

As the Congress moves to rid the U.S. of all effective environmental
regulation,[1] we should ask whether the alternative --reliance on the
marketplace by itself to control pollution --is likely to work. Here we
examine a case study --the dry cleaning industry.

There is nothing dry about dry cleaning. All materials processed by dry
cleaners--clothing, rugs, or whatever--are soaked in toxic solvents. A
few cleaners (about 6%) use Stoddard solvent. The other 94% use
perchloroethylene, or "perc" as it is known in the business.[2] Perc is
a hydrocarbon derived from petroleum, with chlorine molecules attached.
As a "chlorinated hydrocarbon," perc shares certain characteristics
with other chlorinated hydrocarbons: they tend to be soluble in fat and
not in water (and therefore they tend to accumulate in fatty tissues as
they pass through the food chain); they tend to persist for a long time
in the environment; and they tend to be toxic. Perc has all of these

There are 35,000 dry cleaning establishments in the U.S. and Canada.
Together they use 300 million pounds [136 million kilograms] of perc
each year. Of this, 13 million pounds is recycled; the remaining 287
million pounds are released into the environment.[3] According to
estimates by U.S. and Canadian researchers, as much as 90 percent of
perc is lost directly to the atmosphere;[4] presumably the remainder is
washed down the drain along with process water. (Most dry cleaning
machines use perc with water added.)

It should be no surprise, then, that perc can be found almost
everywhere in the environment, and in much of our food and water. At
577 sites in the U.S., perc could be measured in the air at an average
(median) concentration of 1 microgram per cubic meter (1 ug/m3).[4] In
the U.S., a government survey of "finished water" (water taken directly
from the tap) of 36 cities showed that 25% of drinking water contains
perc at an average (median) concentration of 3.0 parts per billion
(ppb). In Canada, 30 potable water supplies (treated water) contained 1
ppb average, 2 ppb maximum.

Fish in the sea contain 0.3 to 43 ppb of perc. Surveys of U.S. food
samples have found perc in grape jelly, chocolate sauce, wheat and
corn. As you might expect, butter and oil can contain high levels of
perc--100 to 1000 ppb. Perc was detected in 7 out of 8 samples of human
breast milk;[4] after one mother visited a dry cleaning shop and was
then tested, her milk contained 1 ppm (1000 ppb) of perc --500 times as
high as the U.S. drinking water standard for children. Therefore we
know that many Americans start life imbibing a cocktail of milk laced
with perc. (The alternative, infant formula made with tap water, is
likely to be even more contaminated, and is certainly less nutritious
and less beneficial to both mother and child.)

The average exposures of average Americans and Canadians to perc are
relatively low. However, there are a few sub-populations who may be
getting very high exposures: dry-cleaning workers, and people who live
in or near buildings that house dry cleaners. A study of 950 dry
cleaners in New York reveals that 700 of them are housed in buildings
that also have residential apartments.[5] Many of these apartments can
be expected to have higher-than-normal levels of perc in the air. In
extreme cases, buildings near dry cleaners can smell almost as strongly
of perc as the dry cleaning establishments themselves; an estimated one
million Americans live in such circumstances today.

Most people know what perc smells like because they carry perc home on
their freshly dry-cleaned clothes and it is then released into their
homes over a 5-to-6-day period. An estimated 100 million Americans
expose themselves to low levels of perc by this means each year.

An estimated 537,000 people work in dry cleaning establishments where
they may be exposed to average levels that can exceed 170 ppm [parts
per million] in the air, though the levels have been dropping in recent
years in response to government regulation and enforcement. From
studies of these workers (and of people drinking perc-contaminated
water), it has been shown that perc causes nervous system disorders
(headaches, nausea, dizziness and other problems of the central nervous
system), infertility,[6] and several kinds of cancer in humans,
including leukemia, and cancer of the lung, cervix, liver, pancreas,
skin, and esophagus.[7]

Indirectly, perc contributes to destruction of the earth's ozone layer.
When perc degrades in the atmosphere, about 8% of it turns into carbon
tetrachloride, which is a powerful ozone-depleting chemical. Perc from
dry cleaners releases up to 21 million pounds of carbon tet each year.

The good news is that there are readily-available alternative cleaning
technologies that do not rely on toxic chemicals; that are more
profitable for the owner or operator; and that would create 33,000 more
jobs if the whole U.S. dry cleaning industry were to make the switch.

The new technology is known as "multiprocess wet cleaning;" it relies
on a combination of water, natural soaps, steam and heat to clean
clothing. Careful inspection and cleaning of garments is done by a
skilled technician who decides which technique (steaming, scrubbing,
etc.) will best clean a garment on an individual basis --as opposed to
dry cleaning, where garments receive a standard treatment. The type of
garment, its fabric category, and the degree of soiling and/or stains
are key factors in the technician's decision of how best to clean any
given garment. In other words, the new technology substitutes
information, skilled judgment, and labor for toxic chemicals,
increasing both jobs and profits in the bargain. U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency ran a pilot test of the new technologies --which
Greenpeace has dubbed greenclean --and EPA reports that greenclean "is
economically competitive and performs as well as, or better than,
traditional dry cleaning." EPA calculations show that dry cleaners who
convert an existing shop or start up a new greenclean operation will
increase their profits by 5% and their return on investment by 78%.
Converting to greenclean will also provide more skilled jobs in the
marketplace because it requires 21% more labor. A survey of over 350
customers revealed that customers preferred greenclean over dry
cleaning in terms of overall quality of cleaning. One company that
sells franchises to the technology is Eco Franchise (their stores are
called Ecomat) at 1-800-299-2309, or 212-769-1777. (We are NOT
endorsing their business operations, about which we know nothing. Based
on EPA tests, we believe their technology is superior to dry cleaning.)
There are several Ecomat cleaning shops operating now in New York City.

So here is a clear place for the market to prove itself. A dangerous,
polluting technology should be driven off the market by a cheaper,
cleaner, more profitable alterative, if the pure-market boosters are

Unfortunately, all indications are that the switch cannot take place
without increased government intervention. Most dry cleaners are very
small operations; they can't take the risks involved in any changeover
until the technology has proven itself and has shown itself to be a
market success. Likewise, the technology cannot develop many customers
and prove itself until the change has occurred. In sum, it's a chicken-
and-egg problem. Dry cleaners, being small, get their information
chiefly from other dry cleaners and from vendors of chemicals and
equipment. Chemicals and expensive equipment are absent from
greenclean, so vendors aren't pushing it. Finally, many garments today
are labeled "dry clean only" and wet-process cleaners are reluctant to
take on the liabilities involved in ignoring such a label; labeling
standards in the garment industry will have to change.

Government --acting on its clear mandate to protect public health and
safety --could make it happen. By placing an eco-tax on perc, the
government could pay for a program of information, demonstration, and
technical assistance to small dry cleaners, to help them evaluate the
changeover for themselves. And who besides government can alert
consumers to the real hazards of perc? In the ideal case, government
would ban the sale of dry cleaning equipment that relies on dangerous
toxic chemicals like perc. (This might be construed as a "taking" of
the equipment manufacturers' rights --but purveyors of perc and perc-
using equipment have "taken" our right to clean air, clean water, and
clean food. They have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in
toxic dump cleanup costs, and water filtration costs, not to mention
health costs. It seems fair that "the greatest good for the greatest
number" should be the ethical standard of judgment here, and that
sellers of broadly destructive machines and chemicals should be
penalized for their antisocial, dangerous, polluting behavior.)

Can market mechanisms clean up the dry cleaning industry? Apparently
not, at least not by themselves. Some government intervention will be

--Peter Montague


[1] Carol Browner, chief of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
says H.R. 1022, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives February
28, 1995, is "...a full frontal assault on protecting public health and
the environment...." "This legislation will undermine virtually every
health protection that the American people depend on," she said. See
U.S. EPA ENVIRONMENTAL NEWS (press release R-37) February 28, 1995, pg.

[2] Perc is often known as tetrachloroethylene or PCE, though it has
several other names as well. No matter what its name, it is always CAS
[Chemical Abstract Services] Number 127-18-4.

[3] Bonnie Rice and Jack Weinberg, DRESSED TO KILL; THE DANGERS OF DRY
and Toronto, Ontario: Greenpeace and Pollution Probe, 1994). Copies
available from: Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. (phone 202/462-1177) or
Pollution Probe in Ontario (phone: 416/345-8408). This is an excellent
study, carefully researched and fully-documented. This study, and the
report by Mattei (cited below) tell you everything you need to know
about dry cleaning and how it can be made environmentally beneficial,
more profitable, and a provider of more jobs.

[4] Philip H. Howard and others, editors, HANDBOOK OF ENVIRONMENTAL
(Chelsea, Mich.: Lewis Publishers, 1990), pgs. 418-429.

[5] Susan Mattei and Mark Green, CLOTHED IN CONTROVERSY; THE RISK TO
(New York: Public Advocate of the City of New York [1 Centre Street,
New York, NY 10017; phone 212/669-7200], 1994.

[6] J.W.J. van der Gulden and G.A. Zielhuis, "Reproductive hazards
AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 61 (1989), pgs. 235-242. And: Helena
Taskinen and others, "Spontaneous abortions and congenital
malformations among the wives of men occupationally exposed to organic
(1989), pgs. 345-352.

[7] Ann Aschengrau and others, "Cancer Risk and Tetrachloroethylene-
contaminated Drinking Water in Massachusetts," ARCHIVES OF
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 48, No. 5 (September/October, 1993), pgs.
284-292. And: Avina M. Ruder and others, "Cancer Mortality in female
and male dry-cleaning workers," JOURNAL OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE Vol.
36 No. 8 (August 1, 1994), pg. 867.

Descriptor terms: dry cleaning; tetrachloroethylene; perchloroethylene;
chlorinated hydrocarbons; ozone depletion; human health; drinking
water; food safety; food contamination; fish; wildlife; breast milk;
occupational safety and health; indoor air pollution; infertility;
central nervous system disorders; leukemia; lung cancer; cervical
cancer; esophageal cancer; epa; greenclean; ecomat; labeling standards;
garment industry; regulation; taxation; eco tax; takings;