Slow Phaseout of Toxic Dry Cleaning Chemical

Friday, March 19, 2010

by Michael Hawthorne, CHICAGO TRIBUNE, March 14, 2010

dreamstime_3889538 Illinois is moving to phase out the use of perchloroethylene, or perc, a common dry-cleaning chemical linked to cancer, liver damage and neurological problems.

Under legislation pushed by Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, dry cleaners would be banned from installing new perc machines after this year and from using the chemical in residential buildings by 2013. All perc use would be outlawed in 2026, giving businesses time to switch to other cleaning methods.

Concerns about perc have been growing for years. The widespread contamination of groundwater from dry-cleaner spills came into sharper focus last year after the Tribune reported that residents of south suburban Crestwood unwittingly drank water contaminated with perc and related chemicals for more than two decades.

Based on years of research, the federal government also considers perc a hazardous air pollutant that can pose health risks from chronic exposure.

Similar to rules already adopted in California and being considered by other states, the Illinois legislation seeks to dramatically reduce the use of a toxic chemical that has poisoned hundreds of sites across the state. Cleaners have taxed themselves to finance the cleanup of about 500 sites, most of which are in the Chicago area. More than 400 remain.

In an attempt to soften opposition from the dry-cleaning industry, which includes many small, family-owned shops, the state would award grants of up to $10,000 to buy new, perc-free equipment. The grants would be funded by a new tax on perc used by cleaners.

“We realize this is an industry made up of a lot of small businesses,” said Doug Scott, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “But there is new and better technology available that doesn’t create … environmental and health problems.”

Developed in the 19th century, perc is a chlorine-based solvent that dry cleaners adopted after World War I. It once was used in massive quantities with few if any rules to protect workers and neighbors from noxious vapors or surrounding properties from chemical spills. [Read rest of story]

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