When you take your precious silk blouse or favorite wool pants to a dry cleaner, do you ever wonder how exactly they are being cleaned? Did you know that most shops in King County (and nationwide) clean your clothing with a carcinogenic chemical called perchloroethylene (PERC)? Imagine your home washing machine being filled with PERC, rather than water. That is pretty much how PERC dry cleaning works.
We sat down with Dr. Steve Whittaker, PhD, with Public Health’s Environmental Services Division and the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program (LHWMP) to find out more about the problem with PERC and what LHWMP is doing to protect our community and the environment. Steve is a toxicologist with many years of experience in this area.
Why is LHWMP concerned about PERC dry cleaning? PERC is a human carcinogen. Studies show that people who have chronic exposures to PERC, like people who work in the dry cleaning industry, have an increased risk for several cancers and other serious health effects. However, we don’t have any evidence to suggest that dry cleaning customers are at risk from the relatively small amount of PERC that remains on
PERC also contaminates the environment. There are about 189 contaminated dry cleaning sites in King County alone. Several cities in King County draw their drinking water from shallow aquifers that contain trace levels of PERC. The level of PERC does not currently present any risk to the public but it’s important to reduce the risk of further contamination. Helping dry cleaners switch to safer alternatives is one way to do that.
What is LHWMP doing about it? Our goal is to eliminate the use of PERC in dry cleaning in King County by 2025. We are offering $20,000 grants to help dry cleaners switch to safer cleaning methods. So far, we have helped five PERC shops switch out their PERC machines for professional wet cleaning equipment, which uses water and detergent rather than a cancer-causing organic solvent. This new water-based process works with all “dry clean only” fabrics. We will be offering six more grants this year, and then ten per year until all 70 remaining King County PERC dry cleaners have switched to a safer alternative.
Is helping dry cleaners switch away from PERC an equity and social justice issue?Yes. Most dry cleaning business owners are first-generation immigrants from South Korea and their shops are owner-operated, husband-and-wife operations. However, when there are employees, they are typically Latino/Latinx. Owner-operated businesses are typically not subject to state occupational safety rules, unless they are covered by industrial insurance in Washington State. Consequently, many of these workers do not have the information they need to protect themselves from hazardous PERC exposures. In addition, much of the information about chemical hazards is only available in English, which is not the first language of many workers in this industry.
How can I tell whether my dry cleaner is using PERC? Ask your dry cleaner about which solvent they are using. You can also visit the EnviroStars web site to find a green business in your neighborhood.
Mr. Tae Park of Sun Drive-In Cleaners in the Wallingford neighborhood in Seattle was one of the first dry cleaners to receive a $20,000 grant for a professional wet cleaning machine. Since switching from PERC, Mr. Park reports that he no longer suffers from health problems while working in his shop and he’s already seen lower utility bills. Mr. Park told us that he loves his new equipment and that “this machine is the future.”
On September 25th, 2018, Mr. Park hosted members of the King County Board of Health at his shop to highlight the PERC removal program.
Moving dry cleaners away from PERC sounds like a lot of work. Who are you teaming with? LHWMP is a multi-agency program and this work would not be possible without partnerships across several county government agencies. We are also enjoying tremendous support from LHWMP Program Director Lynda Ransley and the King County Board of Health, led by Chairman Rod Dembowski.
Where can I find more information about dry cleaning in King County? LHWMP’s Dry Cleaning web page provides links to the many studies we conducted to help inform our work with dry cleaners and other resources.
Published on 10/24/18