EPA Issues Hopeful Sign for Environmental Health

Agency signals openness to banning cancer-causing dry cleaning chemical


Kathleen Sutcliffe, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235 

In the latest sign from the Obama administration that it isn’t interested in defending bad Bush-era environmental regulations, the government on Friday asked a federal appeals court to allow it to reconsider the Bush administration’s legal and policy positions on cancer-causing pollution from dry cleaners.

Earthjustice, representing the Sierra Club, had challenged a 2006 refusal by the Bush administration to phase out the use of perchloroethylene (PCE, or perc). Although such a phase-out would have eliminated the substantial cancer risks that PCE poses to millions of Americans — and done so at little or no cost to industry — the Bush administration dismissed the risks, declaring that the phase-out was not worth implementing.

After years of delay tactics by the last administration, the case was finally scheduled to be heard by a panel of judges next month. But rather than defend the bad regulations issued by the previous administration, EPA says it wants to go back and re-evaluate the rule.

“This is great news. The previous administration’s approach was wrongheaded and illegal,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. “We hope the new administration moves to get this toxic chemical out of the air we breathe and eliminate the cancer risk it creates for millions of Americans.”

EPA has acknowledged that the health risks from PCE dry cleaners are extremely high, and has classified PCE as a probable cancer-causing chemical that has been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Although some cleaners have successfully switched to non-toxic alternatives like wet cleaning, more than 27,000 dry cleaners across the country still use old machines that clean clothes with PCE.

“We would like to see this shape up as a premiere green initiative with assistance to the small business owners who operate our local dry cleaners, new opportunities for equipment manufacturers, and improved air quality for neighborhoods across the nation,” said Marti Sinclair, chair of the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team.  

Because PCE dry cleaners are located throughout neighborhoods in virtually every city and town in America, millions of Americans are exposed to their toxic emissions. In many cities, dry cleaners operate in the same buildings as apartments, schools, and day care centers. People are exposed to PCE when they breathe in the emissions from dry cleaning machines and when they breathe in emissions released over time from the clothes that are cleaned at dry cleaners.

“EPA’s action makes sense, given the viability of non-toxic alternatives to perc dry cleaning,” said Peter Sinsheimer, Director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College. Since 1998, Sinsheimer has managed the Environmental Garment Care Demonstration Project which educates cleaners about two environmentally benign alternatives: professional wet cleaning — a less-expensive water-based technology and CO2 dry cleaning — a hi-tech solution which compresses recycled carbon dioxide into a liquid cleaning fluid.

In California there are more than 125 cleaners exclusively using professional wet cleaning and 10 cleaners using CO2. Research conducted by Sinsheimer has shown that PCE cleaners who switch to professional wet cleaning maintain their cleaning quality, and have significantly lower operating costs and energy use. Sinsheimer is now working with a number of other states to develop similar demonstration programs, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

“Professional wet cleaning is an ideal replacement technology for the vast majority of perc cleaners,” said Sinsheimer. “The quality of cleaning is comparable or better than perc, the capital and operating costs are lower, and the technology is extremely energy efficient.”

In California, a number of municipal and investor-owned utilities provide financial incentives to dry cleaners switching to professional wet cleaning. In addition, California imposes a fee on the use of perc in dry cleaning which creates an incentive fund for cleaners switching to professional wet cleaning and CO2 dry cleaning.

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