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Stay green when you dry clean

October 31, 2002

NATURAL PERSPECTIVES

On Nov. 1, the South Coast Air Quality Management District will

consider a ban on a widely used dry cleaning fluid called Perc. If

the ban passes, our area will be the first in the nation to prohibit

use of this toxic chemical for dry cleaning.

Perc is the cute, harmless-sounding nickname for

perchloroethylene, a highly volatile organic solvent. How could the

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nasty old air quality district want to ban such a cute-sounding

chemical? Sure, the air stinks inside dry cleaning establishments,

and workers in the industry get headaches, dizziness, sore throats

and coughs, but is that reason enough to ban use of Perc?

No, the reason is that dry cleaning workers also have higher rates

than the general public of cancers of the lung, cervix, esophagus,

intestine, pancreas and bladder. Perc has also been blamed for liver

and kidney toxicity. Officials from the air quality district say that

dry cleaning establishments pose a greater risk of cancer to workers

and nearby residents than oil refineries and power plants. In fact,

the risk of cancer is two to 14 times higher in people living near

dry cleaning businesses than in people who live near an oil refinery

or power plant.

In 2000, the Air Quality Management District identified Perc as

one of six key toxic air contaminants. But the California Cleaners

Assn., an organization of cleaning establishment owners, says that

Perc isn't that bad. The association claims that the health risk

studies are flawed.

We wanted to sift through the hype and fear-mongering from one

side and the self-interested denial from the other side. We wanted

the truth. It wasn't easy to find.

The Environmental Protection Agency Web site, one of our

first-line sources of environmental information, was filled with

arcane facts and hard-to-understand tables. We quickly gave up on

that. We resorted to searching the National Library of Medicine

online to read the original medical studies for ourselves. This is

what we learned:

It is clear that Perc causes cancer in animals. But of course,

researchers can't test chemicals on humans. They have to look at

people who are exposed during the course of work and see what happens

after years of exposure.

What epidemiologists found is that dry cleaning workers have much

higher rates of cancer of the esophagus and bladder than other

people. Exposed workers also have an elevated risk for cancer of the

tongue, intestine and lung, as well as for pneumonia and diseases of

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