California regulators on Thursday enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on the most common chemical used by dry cleaners, pleasing environmentalists but worrying some small businesses.
By 2023, no more dry-cleaning machines that use the toxic solvent perchloroethylene, a potential carcinogen, will be permitted in the state.
The regulation by the California Air Resources Board will phase out the fluid next year, banning dry cleaners from buying machines that rely on the solvent. The state’s 3,400 dry cleaners who now use it must get rid of machines that are 15 years or older by July 2010.
“Dry cleaners have known this is a problem for quite some time,” board member Dorene D’Adamo said. “There is a cost to society, and believe me, taxpayers are paying for it.”
The rule was approved unanimously by the seven-member board and was embraced by environmental and health advocates. They urged the board to accelerate the ban because of the chemical’s health effects. The solvent has contaminated one in 10 wells in California.
Meanwhile, cleaners said eliminating the most common dry cleaning solvent could drive them out of business because alternative methods are unproven and more costly.
Big potential costs for small shops
“It could shut down some mom-and-pop operations — the little guys that can’t afford it,” said Bob Blackburn, president of the California Cleaners Association.
The cost of converting could be significant for dry cleaners, 85 percent of which are small business with a slim profit margin.
Replacing a machine that uses perchloroethylene, which is known as “perc,” can cost between $41,500 and $175,000.
What alternative should be allowed in California is still under debate. Dry cleaners that switched to other systems sought to sway the board in favor of their preference.
Although the air board did not endorse a substitute, the regulation would give cleaners a $10,000 incentive to buy a machine that uses carbon dioxide or a what is known as a “wet cleaning” system.
Environmentalists urged the board to ban the most common alternative, which uses hydrocarbons. Critics said it could lead to increased ozone pollution.
“It seems to me there needs to be some clarity,” said air board member Ron Rogers. “I think some of the primary options are really questionable at best.”
The board’s vote follows similar action five years ago by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California. That agency became the first regulatory body in the country to ban perchloroethylene, forcing more than 2,000 dry cleaners to stop using the chemical by 2020.
Businesses refute toxicity claims
California declared perchloroethylene a toxic chemical in 1991. State health officials told the air board Thursday that it can cause esophageal cancer, lymphoma, cervical and bladder cancer.
Business owners disputed those claims.
“We believe perc has served the industry well for many years with no related health problems,” said John Horst, owner of Margaret’s Cleaners in La Jolla, which has operated for more than 50 years.
About 70 percent of the state’s dry cleaners use the chemical and will be affected by the regulation.
Cleaners operating in residential buildings must remove their perchloroethylene machines by July 2010. Health advocates want the earlier timeline applied to cleaners operating near schools, retirement homes, day care centers and medical buildings.