Activists Challenge EPA Rule Allowing Continued Use of Toxic Solvent

Failure to require use of readily available non-toxic alternatives reflects toxics program in disarray


James Pew, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club, (513) 761-6140, ext. 28
Peter Sinsheimer, Occidental College, (323) 259-1420

The Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a lawsuit in federal court that challenges the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to phase out the use of perchloroethylene, a highly toxic chemical still used as a solvent in most dry cleaning facilities.  Approximately 27,000 dry cleaners currently use perchloroethylene, also known as “perc” or “PCE,” and millions of Americans are at risk from their emissions. Perc has been identified as a probable cause of cancer, and also causes other serious adverse health effects, including headaches, dizziness, eye irritation, kidney and liver damage and damage to the central nervous system. Recognizing the danger posed by perc, California air regulators recently called for a phase out. Independently, many dry cleaners have voluntarily switched to cleaner, safer technologies. The switch can be accomplished at little or no cost, by requiring cleaners to switch to non-perc cleaning machines as their old systems wear out.

“Dry cleaners are located in almost every neighborhood in America,” said Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club’s National Air Committee Chair. “Perc is a very dangerous chemical that threatens the health of workers and owners of dry cleaning facilities. Nursing mothers are also especially at risk. There are viable, less toxic cleaning machines and processes that are affordable and available now. This is a very simple equation that EPA simply chooses not to solve. There are so many people exposed to perc from dry cleaners that EPA should be making cleaning up this pollution a top priority. Instead, the agency has balked.”

There are approximately 35,000 cleaners operating in America, and more than 27,000 still use old machines that clean clothes with perc. Wet cleaning machines, and machines that run on captured carbon dioxide, or CO2, offer the same cleaning quality with none of the toxic threats of perc.

“Already there are cleaners in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Kansas City and many other cities that have made the switch to wet cleaning or CO2,” said Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center for the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. “Wet cleaning and CO2 machines are just a few proven, effective alternatives to perc. Cleaners and workers who are using these alternatives say they experience fewer headaches, less eye irritation and better health. Customers say their clothes come back clean, without any chemical smell. Phasing out perc is something that EPA can and should do immediately.”

Perc is a dangerous, pervasive chemical. Of the approximately 1,200 Superfund sites in the United States, more than half are contaminated at least in part with perc. Recognizing the danger to human health, the California Air Resources Board this May directed staff to prepare a rule that would completely phase out perc machines. “I think at the end of the day, we’re dealing with something that needs to be eliminated,” said California Air Resources Board member Ron Roberts. “As we become increasingly urbanized, there isn’t a healthy way to deal with this. I think we need to just take a step in the direction of basically putting people in the industry on notice that the perc has to go.”

“Perc machines can easily be phased out because the operating costs for a number of alternatives are the same or lower,” Sinsheimer added.

Hans Kim is one such cleaner who has successfully switched from perc to professional wet cleaning.  “My customers love it, my employees love it, and my costs are now lower because I don’t have to deal with toxic chemicals” says Kim. 

EPA’s failure to take an obvious and cost-effective step to protect millions of at risk Americans against a known toxin reflects a widespread breakdown in the agency’s air toxics program. In July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that EPA had failed to take action on scores of specific pollution control measures that the Clean Air Act required the agency to complete several years ago. One month later, a federal court found EPA “grossly delinquent” in meeting Clean Air Act requirements. 

“EPA’s refusal to get perc out of our communities is the latest letdown from an agency that consistently fails to do what Congress plainly intended: protect the public from toxic pollution,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. “Dry cleaning machines that spew toxic pollution can and should be replaced. Perhaps the same could be said of the leadership at EPA.”

For contact information for dry cleaners that have switched to non-toxic wet cleaning and CO2 process in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Antonio and other cities, please contact Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, at (202) 675-6279.

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