CHANGE IS IN THE AIR DRY-CLEANING CHEMICAL BAN COULD REDUCE CANCER RISK.
Air pollution regulators, prodded by environmental lobbyists, will consider a ban next month on the most commonly used dry-cleaning chemical, calling it a step toward reducing a serious cancer threat in the air.
Dry cleaners, their neighbors and consumers are at risk from the continued use of perchloroethylene, or perc, which is one of the most toxic and prevalent air and water contaminants in the Southern California region, according to regulators from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The AQMD's move garnered support from the Santa Monica-based environmental lobbyist group Coalition for Clean Air, which released a study Tuesday linking perc to cancer, nerve damage, reproductive difficulties and birth defects.
But the dry-cleaning industry is fighting the proposed rule, which would be the first of its kind in the nation. Cleaners say regulators overstate the health risk of perchloroethylene and that the ban could end up actually exacerbating Los Angeles' smog.
``I like this business,'' said Nick Tirabassi, president of Porter Ranch Cleaners. ``I've put three kids through college and we've led a good life. But I'm afraid for the future.''
If they're forced to give up their machines, the California Cleaners Association predicts more than 500 businesses could have to close, while those still open would have to raise prices up to 50 percent to absorb costs brought on by switching to new technologies.
The AQMD will consider the regulation Nov. 1. If adopted, nearly 2,200 dry cleaners would have to convert to a different cleaning method by 2019, at a cost of roughly $4.3 million a year for the industry.
Though air officials have been pushing water-based and other environmentally friendly cleaners, dry cleaners say most businesses will replace perc with chemicals that emit smog-forming pollutants. And those other solvents don't clean as thoroughly or as gently as perc.
At Porter Ranch Cleaners, Tirabassi's voice takes on a steeled edge when discussing the proposed changes. Though he figures he could afford the $50,000 investment in a new machine, he would have to raise prices to keep costs down. Slacks would cost $5 per cleaning, up 50 cents from their current rate and suits would climb a dollar to $11.45.
Tim Carmichael, the Coalition for Clean Air's executive director, said he sympathized with cleaners' concerns, but that the proposed ban would not unduly harm them. To minimize the transition difficulties, the Coalition recommends that the AQMD go through with its proposal to disburse up to $2 million in rebates for cleaners who switch to alternative cleaning technologies.
``We're not anti-small business,'' he said. ``We've worked with representatives from the dry-cleaning industry and we think they can make a profit and take care of their families without the toxic chemicals.'' AQMD health effects officer Jean Ospital said the scientific data showed that perc has caused cancer in lab rats and is likely a human carcinogen. According to the organization's findings, dry cleaners pose a higher cancer risk than most large industrial facilities.
``These sources are all over the place and many are literally next door to houses and schools,'' Ospital said.
The AQMD figures that dry cleaners emit about 60 percent of the perc in the Los Angeles air basin, or about 850 tons per year.
The agency is concerned that people living downwind from dry cleaners might become sick from long-term exposure to perc, Ospital said. The chemical can cause kidney, liver and neurological defects after years of inhalation. Dry-cleaning industry representatives say there is no evidence to suggest neighbors are at risk. A engineer hired by the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance determined that with modern dry-cleaning machines, Los Angeles area dry cleaners emit less than half of the perc estimated by the AQMD and present an insignificant cancer risk.
Perc is a clear liquid cleaner that's as effective in removing stains from delicate fabrics as dissolving grease on metal. Dry cleaners began using perc because it was cheap, strong and nonflammable. It soon became the industry standard, largely replacing kerosene and other petroleum-based solutions.
Then laboratory rats pumped full of the chemical developed cancer. Scientists concluded that perc was a possible risk to humans.
``Their study has rodents drinking perc,'' said Jackie Smith, director of the California Cleaners Association. ``We don't think that's safe, but with safe handling, the risk is not there. I wouldn't be working in here with my family if I thought it was a problem.''
Later studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety showed that dry-cleaning workers who handled the chemical back in the 1960s had higher rates of cancer than the general population.
In the early 1990s the California Air Resources Board and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on dry cleaners and their use of the toxic agent. Owners had to install all-in-one washing and drying machines that captured and recycled perc.
That cut perc pollution by 80 percent and was expected to reduce the cancer risk by 75 percent.
Encino dry cleaner Sam Afra said that after installing the new machines the instantly recognizable smell of perc nearly disappeared from his shop, Elliot's Drycleaners.
``With the regulations we have already and the machines we have already, it's safe,'' he said. ``And they're doing it for nothing. Tell me how many dry cleaners got cancer? Show me only 1 percent and I'd get rid of my machine tomorrow.''
But AQMD officials say even with the new machines the cancer risk from perc fumes would be 15 to 90 in 1 million - still much higher than the acceptable risk of less than 10 in 1 million. The proposed rule would require cleaners installing new equipment after Jan. 1 to use water, hydrocarbon, liquid silicon or one of the other alternatives to perc.
By January 2004, cleaners would have to retire any 15-year-old perc- using machine.
Herman Ciecekci, owner of Northridge's Hillcrest Cleaners and Granada Hills' Snow White Cleaners, already has made the switch to a Lindus PM60, an advanced petroleum-based machine. He doesn't see what the fuss is about, because he's found the $50,000 machine to be cheaper to operate than the perc versions he used to run. As a plus, he can also handle leather goods and beaded items, which perc machines can't process, doubling his business in the past two years.
``Make the change while you can,'' he said. ``It's such an awesome technology, it's beautiful what I can do with it. Beaded stuff, sequins, things most dry cleaners are afraid of, I tell my customers 'bring it on.'''
But he's in the minority, according to Smith of the cleaners association. Of the 2,200 cleaners who fall under the AQMD's jurisdiction, she says only 80 employ alternative technologies.
The industry would rather that the AQMD require cleaners to switch to new machines that could cut perc emissions by an additional 45 percent, said Lisa Bernfeld, who is representing the California Cleaners Association. But the AQMD ruled out that compromise, spokesman Sam Atwood said, because it didn't cut perc emissions enough.
Maybe so, Tirabassi said, but he questioned the decision to enact new regulations with the alternative technologies yet to be fully tested.
``They're not playing fair,'' he said bitterly. ``We're a small industry and they can just roll on over us.''
(1 -- color) Nick Tirabassi, president of Porter Ranch Cleaners, is concerned what a perc ban could have on dry cleaners.
(2 -- color) Eli Gichon discusses a possible ban on perc Tuesday in front of his dry-cleaning business in Van Nuys.
Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer