Some 30,000 dry cleaners in the U.S. use perchloroethylene (PERC) in their cleaning processes. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA set standards in 1993 for dry cleaners' PERC emissions. Within eight years of that date, the Clean Air Act required EPA to evaluate the remaining health risks from the highest emitting dry cleaners (those with the potential to emit ten tons or more of PERC each year), and set any additional standards necessary to protect public health and the environment. In particular, the Act required EPA to set standards if the cancer risk for the individual most exposed to dry cleaners' emissions is greater than one in one million.
The Clean Air Act's deadline for EPA to take these actions was September 22, 2001. Thus, the agency is now more than two years late.
"Many if not most Americans live near a dry cleaner," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew, who is representing the Sierra Club in a lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "It's time that EPA looked at the health risks and protected the public from at least the very worst polluters."
Thousands of dry cleaner employees are exposed to PERC each year at the workplace, but people can also be exposed to PERC just by picking up their dry cleaning or hanging it in their closets. EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have linked PERC to cancer, and there is some evidence that exposure to PERC can damage the kidney, liver, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems. Nursing mothers exposed to PERC may excrete it in their milk, placing their infants at risk as well. Much of the PERC used annually in the United States is lost to the atmosphere. Because of this, PERC can be also be found in rain water, sea water and rivers causing it to be found in food such as dairy products, meats, oils and fats, fruits and vegetables, and in the tissue of fish, shellfish and marine mammals.
In a related case, Earthjustice and Sierra Club already sued to compel EPA to undertake a Congressionally-mandated review of its technology-based standards (so-called MACT standards) for dry cleaners. EPA has yet to revisit those standards, and the case is still pending.
"We know how to keep this toxic pollution out of our air," said Sierra Club's Combustion Task Force chair, Jane Williams. "The Los Angeles region's air quality management agency has already taken steps to require a PERC phase-out by 2020, to reduce the risk that area residents face from toxic emissions from these facilities."
"Even though PERC is a known pollutant and suspected carcinogen, more than 90 percent of dry cleaners in the United States continue to use it," added Earthjustice's Jim Pew. "California is phasing out PERC usage and is utilizing less toxic cleaning methods -- why can't EPA provide the same protections for the rest of America?"