A "perc" you can do without

Consumer Reports News: March 21, 2007 10:21 AM

In the better-late-than-never department, we want to take a moment to applaud California for its decision earlier this year to phase out the use of a cancer-causing chemical that’s commonly used in dry-cleaning.   

On January 25, the California Air Resources Board voted to gradually reduce and eventually ban the use of perchloroethylene, or perc, as a solvent used in dry cleaning. Beginning in 2008, no new perc-using machines may be installed in California; By July 2010, dry cleaners must remove all perc machines housed in apartment buildings and other residential facilities. By 2023, perc will no longer be allowed in any California dry-cleaning establishment.   

The 16-year phase out may seem like a long time — but believe us, this rule has been a long time coming for a toxic solvent that, besides cancer, has also been linked to liver and kidney damage in animals and nerve damage in humans. In 1995, Consumer Reports found high perc levels in apartments located above dry cleaning establishments in New York City. In 1996 we tested consumer exposure to freshly dry-cleaned clothes and found there was enough perc in them to significantly increase cancer risk for consumers who wear a lot of dry-cleaned clothes. 

Perc is not just a problem for people living near dry cleaners and wearers of clothes that are dry cleaned. In many communities, perc has contaminated drinking water supplies, often after used dry cleaning solvents were illegally dumped or discarded in leaky landfills. Past federal and state studies have found that as much as 25% of drinking water supplies and nearly 40% of surface waters tested in the US are contaminated with Perc. 

California's proposed phase-out would not be possible if not for over a decade of research and testing of alternative professional dry cleaning methods. The federal Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Design for the Environment program played a significant role in the development of water-based and liquid carbon dioxide technologies, offered by a growing number of cleaners. Consumer Reports tested carbon dioxide-based cleaning systems in 2003, and found the results to be better than traditional dry-cleaning. Another green process, using silicone, was almost as good. 

The EPA issued a rule last summer requiring dry cleaners operating in residential buildings to stop buying any new perc machines and phase out using existing ones by the end of 2020.  That’s a good start. But we’d like to see the EPA limit perc’s use once and for all — for every state in the country. In the meantime, consumers can help by seeking out facilities that use perc-free dry cleaning methods. 

This EPA guide gives locations and phone numbers of cleaners who use the carbon dioxide method. You can also find cleaners who offer silicone-solvent cleaning here.

You can find more information about green cleaning options at Consumer Reports' GreenerChoices.org.

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