WASHINGTON — While the writing has been on the wall for decades, a sunset deadline for a solvent used in U.S. drycleaning plants has finally been proposed by regulators.
In a statement issued on June 8, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a ban on most uses of perchloroethylene, also known as PCE or perc. It’s used in many fields, such petrochemical manufacturing and the aerospace industry; dry cleaners have used it as a solvent for decades.
In its statement, the EPA says it’s taking this step with perc because it has identified “risks for adverse human health effects, including neurotoxicity from inhalation and dermal exposures as well as cancer effects from chronic inhalation exposure.”
“We know that exposure to PCE is dangerous for people’s health, and today’s rule is an important first step to keeping communities and workers safe,” says Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “We’ve proposed to ban the uses we know can’t continue safely, and we’ve made sure that stringent controls are in place to protect workers for the uses that remain.”
As it’s currently written, the proposed rule would phase out perc on different timelines for various industries, with the ban going into effect for most within 24 months of its passage.
For the drycleaning industry, businesses with older, third-generation drycleaning machines would have to stop using perc within three years and switch to alternative solvents. Cleaners with newer fourth- and fifth-generation equipment, which collects and stores perc more efficiently, would have 10 years to make the change.
One reason that the drycleaning industry has been given a longer phaseout timeline is because of actions taken by the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) and the National Cleaners Association (NCA), says Jon Meijer, DLI’s director of membership. Understanding that this type of action has been discussed for years, the organizations were proactive and got involved in discussions with the EPA early on.
“For most other industries, except for organizations like NASA where there’s not a replacement, it’s going to be banned, but we were able to secure at least a 10-year phaseout on most equipment,” Meijer says. “We would still like to see a longer phaseout, though — we are arguing for a 15-year period — because the lifetime usage of a drycleaning machine is between 15 and 25 years.”
A major factor for the longer timeline is that dry cleaners are, by far, some of the smallest businesses that use perc, he explains.
“There are a lot of mom and pop stores affected by this,” Meijer says. “Right now, they are still picking up the pieces from COVID and trying to get back to normal. Financially, for a lot of cleaners, it would be very difficult to replace their equipment right now — it could put them out of business. That’s why we’ll be pushing for 15 years in the comment period.”
A Predicted Step
Fortunately for the drycleaning industry, this proposed rule did not come as a surprise. Perc has been under scrutiny for its potentially harmful effects since the 1970s.
“DLI has been recommending for 20 years that people look for alternatives,” Meijer says. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the EPA and different agencies were regulating the use of perc more, and it wasn’t going to get better — it was always going to get worse. The industry has done a great job of moving away from perc for many years.”
Meijer estimates that, at its peak, 80-85% of dry cleaners in the United States used perc. That number has fallen to about 30-35%, with the rest switching to hydrocarbon or alternative solvents. But it’s difficult to get exact numbers.
“The census comes out every five years,” he says, “so after five years, you get the number of dry cleaners. Well, we’ve lost a third of the industry in the past two years since COVID. Even then, the census only reports on cleaners with a payroll, and a lot of the smallest cleaners don’t have a payroll. It’s a husband and wife.”
It’s these smaller businesses, Meijer adds, that still use perc because they haven’t been able to switch over to newer machines using alternative solvents.
In an effort to make this phaseout easier for small businesses, there is proposed funding in President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request that, if approved, would offer new pollution prevention grants. These grants, the EPA says in its statement, “could be used to support small businesses like dry cleaners in their transition away from PCE.”
“Those grants, if they actually come out, should be a help,” Meijer says.
In the coming weeks, the EPA says it will host a public webinar for anyone looking for an overview of the proposed rule and to discuss the program.
Also, according to the statement, “The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed rule for PCE for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register via docket EPA-HQ-OPPT-2020-0720 at www.regulations.gov.”
Both DLI and NCA will be arguing for the best outcome for dry cleaners during the comment period, Meijer says, and are looking for input from dry cleaners to make their case the strongest it can be.
He also urges dry cleaners to take this proposed ban to heart when it comes to making decisions about their equipment.
“There’s only one message: As soon as you are able to, look for an alternative solvent. Don’t go back to perchloroethylene. That’s just a no-win situation.”
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].