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For nearly a century, people have depended on dry cleaners to get dirty clothes cleaned and pressed. But now federal regulators are considering a ban on some chemicals used by dry cleaners because of their toxicity. As part of collaboration with Northeast stations, Joyce Kryszak of WBFO in Buffalo reports even before new regulations are in place, some in the cleaning industry are adopting safer alternatives.
When most people drop off their clothes at dry cleaners they don’t have a clue what goes on to make them clean. This is comedian Jerry Seinfeld's take on the mystery.
“See, the whole problem with dry cleaning is that we all believe that this is actually possible. They’re cleaning our clothes, but they’re not getting anything wet. It’s all dry.”
The clothes actually do have to get wet at some point, but not with water. The way cleaners do it is by saturating clothes in a liquid chemical called perchloroethylene or “perc.” It doesn't shrink clothes like water can. Harry Hardee, a dry cleaner in Buffalo, said perc gives customers what they want: clothes that look good.
"I like the way they come out. The wools come out so much nicer when you dry clean 'em," said Hardee. "And that's what you bought 'em for to have that nice look, that nice feel."
Even so, Hardee, like many other cleaners in the Northeast, is now using another solvent. That’s because environmental regulations on perc are getting stricter. And the EPA is considering banning it altogether. Animal studies show breathing high concentrations of perc can cause cancer. It also can cause headaches, dizziness and skin irritation. Dry cleaners breathe it in. And it lingers on clothes that go home with customers. In addition, perc can also get into the air and contaminate groundwater. But the other solvents aren't much better. That’s why some cleaners are adopting a new, non-toxic wet-cleaning process, including Vic Acevedo who said you can smell the difference when you walk through his door.
"Hey, smell the air. It just smells normal in here," said Acevedo.
Acevedo, who runs EcoFriendly Cleaners in Buffalo, swears by wet cleaning, even though it takes a lot more work. The clothes are washed in water and non-toxic detergents. They have to be air-dried slowly and stretched with steam to prevent shrinking. Acevedo said he switched four years ago to be ahead of the regulatory curve.
"You have to think, they're going to pull the plug on this sometime. When am I going to be ready?" said Acevedo.
So, why haven't more dry cleaners switched? For one thing, they have as much as $80,000 invested in each machine. And they don’t have to change, yet. The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s current rules call for a partial phase out of perc by 2020. But that's only for drycleaners using perc in buildings where people live. The Sierra Club is suing the EPA hoping to force a total ban on perc. Still, Jim Pew, an attorney representing the Sierra Club, said they’re willing to compromise.
"So that the small businesses that have invested in these machines don't have to sacrifice them right away, but in a fairly reasonable amount of time we've moved out of perc machines," said Pew.
The EPA reports to federal court in April on its review. But some states aren't waiting for the EPA. California is already phasing out perc. Wet-cleaners are common there. But in other states, including those in the Northeast, regulatory changes are coming more slowly. And shops using only wet cleaning are rare. Some states, like New York and Massachusetts, have new programs to help the heaviest users of perc make the switch to wet-cleaning. And they even offer grants to help pay for it. Consumers are putting the pressure on too. Linda McQuillen drives 25 miles to take her clothes to EcoFriendly Cleaners. She said it’s worth the trip.
"The fact that it's not polluting the environment….that it's more cyclical, so it's not sending out the poisons into the eco-system and the water supply," said McQuillen.
Some are betting on customers like McQuillen and on stricter federal regulations. The state of New York gave more than one million dollars in grants to a new company in Buffalo. It plans to make only wet-cleaning machines and detergents.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative and is made possible by a grant from United Technologies.