Published — October 2, 1999 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Toxic deception


October 2, 1999 — On the Friday before Labor Day 1998, with much of official Washington already on its last summer trek to seashore or home congressional district, a brief statement appeared in the Federal Register. Only a paragraph long, the notice was six years in the making. The Environmental Protection Agency had, at last, finished its study on the risks of dry cleaning and the availability of safer alternatives.

The EPA was releasing the report over the objections of the dry-cleaning and chemical industries, but there was an unspoken compromise. To blunt reaction from the press and public, there would be no news conference, no plain-English summary. Nevertheless, anyone who saw the notice before the holiday, called for a copy of the report, waited three weeks for it to arrive, and waded through the technocratic “Cleaner Technology Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes” could find some interesting news.

The study unveiled a set of frightening statistics that the EPA had been working on since 1992. Workers in dry-cleaning establishments, the agency’s report said, face an estimated excess cancer risk between one in 100 and six in 1,000. (in the risk-assessment world, even one in 1 million is a cause for concern.) And people who live in buildings with dry-cleaning establishments face cancer risks from one in 100 to one in 1 million, based on measurements in apartments in Albany, New York, and San Francisco from 1991 through 1995.

But while the report expressed the EPA’s concern, it did not propose any action-even though in late 1998 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sets workplace safety rules, was trying to toughen its standards for perchloroethylene, over the objections of the dry-cleaning and chemical industries.

The EPA’s most stunning finding, however, was not an arcane cancer risk assessment, but data easily grasped by anyone who has opened a wallet to have good clothing cleaned. The cleaner’s cost for “wet” cleaning in a specially regulated water machine is just 12 cents a pound—bout a third of the 34 cents a pound for traditional dry cleaning with perchloroethylene. Professional wet-cleaning machines are less expensive than dry-cleaning machines, and hazardous-waste disposal costs are nonexistent. True, cleaners must expect to pay higher energy and detergent costs if they switch to water. But they save by eliminating solvent and high machine-maintenance costs. A typical wet-cleaning operation costs an average of $6,308 a year compared with $18,305 a year for chemical dry cleaning, the EPA’s study found. And color, shrinkage, and appearance tests showed no appreciable difference between the two cleaning methods.

Together, the health risk, cost, and performance results practically demand that the EPA recommend that dry cleaners switch to wet cleaning. But in chemical regulation, common sense takes a back seat to appeasing powerful industry groups. The meaty report has been tenderized by six years of pummeling by those groups. The EPA’s stance toward industry is so meek that its report even lays out a third option: a return to the petroleum (or “hydrocarbon”) cleaning products that have been largely abandoned because they tend to explode. In 1994, Exxon Corporation began marketing a less explosive pet5roleum solvent as an alternative to perc. The EPA treats such hydrocarbon cleaners as just another alternative, equally viable as perc or water even though they are more expensive than either (due primarily to astronomical hazardous-waste disposal costs). Hydrocarbon solvents have not been tests as extensively as perc for cancer or other health effects. Another consideration: Unlike perc, the hydrocarbon cleaners may contribute to smog and climate-change problems.

But the EPA’s Stance is not to interfere with the marketplace. “They don’t want to be seen as telling dry cleaners what to do, so they won’t say this is better than that,” David DeRosa of Greenpeace says. But companies such as Dow (which manufactures perc) and Exxon (which manufactures hydrocarbon solvents) aggressively sell dry cleaners on the presumed benefits of their products. Is it too much to ask that regulators play a balancing role) in warning them of the risks? In 1998 in Germany, which has strict restriction on perc, about 10 percent of clothes were wet-cleaned. But in the United States, wet cleaning was being used in only 2090 of the nation’s 36,000 cleaning establishments. IN the dry-cleaning industry, it’s business as usual-as if the EPA report had never been issued.

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