The city of Laurel, Maryland is considering a ban on the most efficient and inexpensive dry cleaning chemical, even as a similar ban in California is chasing dry cleaners there out of business.
Perchloroethylene, known simply as “perc” in the dry cleaning industry, is the primary chemical used in more than 80 percent of the nation’s dry cleaning businesses. When applied to fabrics, the chemical extracts dirt, sweat, and grime without exposing sensitive fabrics to water and laundry chemicals.
Older Machines Leaked
Older dry cleaning machines leaked small amounts of perc that would sometimes make their way into groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports some laboratory rats have developed cancer when exposed to high doses of perc.
Newer dry cleaning machines release almost no perc into the environment, but environmental activist groups are nevertheless pushing for a total ban.
Small Businesses Going Under
In Laurel, legislation being considered by the city council would ban new dry cleaner businesses from using perc. Existing businesses would be allowed to continue using it until they replace or add new machines, at which time they would be required to switch to alternative methods.
In 2007, the California Air Resources Board approved a rule banning the sale of machines using perc. As a result, the cost of doing business is rising, dry cleaners are going out of business, and customers are paying substantially more for inferior cleaning services.
With customers unwilling to pay much higher prices for less-effective dry cleaning services, many small businesses are going under, according to a February 5 article in the Sacramento Bee. Local business owner Samantha Vanausdall and her husband have already closed one of their two dry cleaning stores and plan on closing the other soon, the article noted.
The three alternatives to perc are carbon dioxide, silicone, and modified wet cleaning.
Carbon dioxide cleaning uses liquid carbon dioxide to saturate and extract dirt and grime, but it is not nearly as effective as perc. Carbon dioxide equipment is twice as expensive as the newer, low-emitting perc machines. Also, the possibility of carbon dioxide leakage is causing concerns similar to those over perc leakage, as carbon dioxide emissions are implicated in the campaign against global warming.
Silicone cleaning uses a solvent that has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats, and it produces chlorine. Environmental activist groups that oppose perc also tend to oppose industrial processes that make chlorine as a byproduct. Silicone cleaning is also more expensive than perc.
Wet cleaning uses special detergents that change the pH of water, extracting dirt and grime in a somewhat more gentle process than regular washing machines. However, the process is labor intensive, which drives up dry cleaning costs. Also, even the more gentle wet cleaning process can damage fabrics.
“If you take a beautiful wool suit, and throw it in the dry-cleaning machine with … even a little bit of water … you can throw it away,” A.L. Daniel, owner of a dry cleaning business in Sacramento, told the Sacramento Bee.
Minimal Health Risk
For all the economic and environmental problems created by banning perc, health experts note such a ban will accrue few if any environmental or health benefits.
“There is no evidence that low-level exposure to perc is causing any human health problems,” said Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The possibility of exposure to perc causing any significant health harms is exceedingly low.”
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.