Health and safety in the dry cleaning industry

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{***Pause/Music***}

{***Amie***}

Coming up on Harvard Chan: This Week in Health…Health and safety in the evolving dry cleaning industry.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(Public health research cannot catch up with the fast development of new chemicals and new technologies. In the future it’s really going to be about the industry working more openly)

Why the dry cleaning industry faces hurdles as it tries to switch to less toxic cleaning solvents, plus what the U.S. can learn from Europe when it comes to chemical safety.

{***Pause/Music***}

{***Amie***}

Hello and welcome to Harvard Chan: This Week in Health. It’s Thursday, June 22, 2017. I’m Amie Montemurro.

{***Noah***}

And I’m Noah Leavitt.

Amie, this week we’ll be looking at how America’s rapidly changing dry cleaning industry is grappling with health and safety concerns tied to the chemicals used in the process.

{***Amie***}

Dry cleaning uses organic solvents to clean clothes or other fabrics. These solvents evaporate quickly and are more effective at cleaning stains, compared to soap and water.

But the chemicals used have changed over time—and there’s a new push to develop solvents that are less harmful to human health and the environment.

When you drop off clothes at your local shop you may see signs touting “organic” our “natural” cleaning products.

But are these products safer?

{***Noah***}

The answer to that question is a complicated one, and we’ll be getting some help from Diana Ceballos, a research scientist in the Center for Health and the Global Environment here at the Harvard Chan School.

She’s spent time not only studying dry cleaning chemicals—but also speaking with workers in some of the United States’ 36,000 commercial dry cleaning businesses to understand the challenges they face.

We’ll talk to her about the push to develop less toxic cleaning solvents—and also why the Europe is far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to regulating chemicals.

{***Amie***}

In order to understand changes in the dry cleaning industry you need to understand the history.

And it’s an industry that’s come a long way.

{***Noah***}

Dry cleaning actually dates back to the 1600s when turpentine was the main solvent used. Clothes were basically soaked in large vats and then hung up to dry.

The first commercial dry cleaning businesses opened in the 1800s, says Ceballos.

{***Diana Ceballos SOT***}

(And it used gasoline, kerosene, and continued with the same open trough system for a long time until the 1900s, where the first generation of dry cleaning machine was invented that basically was a closed system that helped recycle the solvent. Despite those improvements, the dry cleaning industry was notorious for fires and it was extremely dangerous to own a dry cleaning or live by a dry cleaner because fires were extremely common. And so because of that, there was the development of new dry cleaning solvents that would not be as fire prone like perchloroethylene.)

{***Noah***}

Perchloroethylene—or PERC—became the most widely used chemical.

Because it’s chlorine-based it is not flammable.

{***Amie***}

But PERC came with a range of safety concerns for human health in the environment.

It’s a potential carcinogen, can be irritating to humans, contributes to air pollution when it’s released from dry cleaning machines, and if it’s dumped it can remain in watersheds for a long time.

{***Noah***}

Because of these concerns the EPA has started pushing to eliminate the use of PERC in dry cleaning shops located in residential buildings by 2020.

And states have also started taking action—most notably California, which wants to end all use of of PERC by 2023.

{***Amie***}

And there has been renewed interest in creating alternatives to PERC.

These include a solvent called one-bromopropane, another called butalyl, and an array of hydrocarbon solvents.

{***Noah***}

There have also been improvements in machine technology to reduce worker exposure to fumes when opening doors or refilling solvents.

{***Amie***}

But there are still risks with these chemicals—and many unknowns because scientists often don’t have a chance to fully review a solvent before it enters the market.

And this leaves dry cleaning workers particularly vulnerable.

The shops where they work are often small businesses, heavily reliant on immigrant labor, and there is often a language barriers, says Ceballos.

All of this increases the risk for chemicals to be mishandled.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(For example, one of the new solvents that are now gaining popularity both here in Europe is butalyl, and that one can potentially form formaldehyde in certain conditions. And the manufacturer says that under normal inspected operating conditions, it should hold well, and thankfully, with our preliminary assessments, it sounded as if formaldehyde was not being formed.

But the reality is that if the owner has a machine that is not working properly or is not adding sort of the pH stabilizers and other things that the process requires, who knows? It’s possible that this formaldehyde, that is a very irritant, carcinogenic, and hazardous chemical could be produced. And so, you know, there’s a lot of risks that go with the education, but there’s a lot of limitations that put them in a vulnerable position.)

{***Amie***}

What Ceballos is describing with butalyl is a prime example of what public health researchers call regrettable substitution.

{***Noah***}

Often times amid the push to develop alternatives, new chemicals will be rushed into the market without fully understanding their long-term health effects.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(Public health research cannot catch up with the fast development of new chemicals and new technologies. And at the end, in the future, it’s really going to be about the industry working more openly in terms of what is the evidence that there’s definitely support for going forward with a particular alternative and not just to fill a market gap, so to speak.)

{***Amie***}

Compounding the problem is the limited regulation surrounding chemicals in the U.S.

Many people incorrectly assume that products like dry cleaning solvents are thoroughly tested by the EPA or other federal agencies before they can be used.

Except for pesticides and pharmaceuticals that is not the case.

{***Noah***}

Ceballos says it is incredibly hard to ban chemicals in the U.S. or even block them from entering the market.

Even asbestos—with its myriad of documented health effects—hasn’t been banned.

It’s important to note that when it comes to dry cleaning there is often local oversight—because businesses must be permitted before they can open.

{***Amie***}

And there is a push to change things at the federal level in the form of revisions to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act—or TSCA.

The new law will require the EPA to prioritize chemicals for safety testing—reviewing a minimum of 20 chemicals at any one time to see if they pose a, quote, “unreasonable risk to humans and the environment.”

Among the chemicals on that list is a dry cleaning solvent we mentioned earlier, one-bromopropane.

{***Noah***}

Ceballos says TSCA reform is a step in the right direction, but ultimately it doesn’t go far enough.

According to Joe Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard Chan School, there are 80,000 chemicals already in use across the U.S.—and nearly 2,000 new chemicals each year.

In other words—there’s almost no way for the EPA to review all of the chemicals on the market.

{***Amie***}

So what’s the solution?

Ceballos says the U.S. can learn lessons from Europe and its rigorous REACH regulation.

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals.

{***Noah***}

It requires all companies manufacturing or importing chemical substances into the European Union in quantities of one ton or more per year to register these substances and to provide detailed information on their health and environmental effects—such as toxicology studies and risk assessment.

So far nearly 150,000 chemicals have been registered.

{***Amie***}

Because it covers the entire EU, Ceballos says REACH can be more effective in pushing the industry to raise standards for chemical safety.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(And so it’s just a much more aggressive and effective. And because I think that having the conglomerate of countries actually forces markets to shift, because it’s like it’s a very lost market if they don’t– if they’re not able to commercialize within the European Union. So it actually makes a big difference, it’s like when Walmart comes out and says, we don’t want these chemicals in our products because they are a huge market for many small businesses and people, they force markets to change. I mean, those things make a difference. And so I think that even if we were able to mimic Europe, we would be in much better shape than we are right now.)

{***Noah***}

Ceballos says consumers can also play a role in pushing the industry to change by supporting dry cleaning businesses that have invested in new technology and safer chemicals.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(Most of the businesses that are switching to some of these new solvents are often, if not in most cases, renewing and changing their machines. So that alone is a huge improvement for reducing emissions from reducing exposure to the workers and optimizing the process, saving energy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So I actually think that supporting those businesses is the right way to go.)

{***Noah***}

But Ceballos also says consumers should be cautious of something called “green-washing.”

{***Amie***}

As we mentioned at the top of the show, drycleaners will often tout their products as natural or organic to present an environmentally responsible image to the public.

Here’s Ceballos again.

{***Diana Ceballos Soundbite***}

(For example, for a dry cleaning to say it’s organic only because it uses an organic solvent is a play on words, but if a consumer is ignorant– when you hear organic, you really think healthy. You know, you think of organic food, you think it’s less chemicals. And in truth, just because you’re using an organic solvent and saying that it’s organic, it’s not technically incorrect, but it’s not also technically correct, so it’s sort of like these vagueness in use of words that can truly deceive a customer. It’s almost like a charge for consumers to be educated in what they’re choosing.

So for example, the butalyl, you know, it’s actually a very pungent sort of fruity smell. It can give you, like, when I was at one of these shops, I couldn’t be more than an hour in one of the shops, it would give me a headache, it was an extremely, extremely harsher smell. So if you’re a very sensitive person to smells, for example, I would discourage you from using that dry cleaner unless you air their clothes maybe before you you put them in your home. You know, little things like that, so you just have to do your research and see what you are actually– ask your dry cleaners what solvent they’re using and do your homework to learn.)

{***Amie***}

And if you want to learn more about the dry cleaning industry and the chemicals used, we’ll have some resources on our website, hsph.me/thisweekinhealth.

{***Noah***}

And a reminder that you can always listen to past episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

June 22, 2017 — Dry cleaning is an industry that dates back to the 1600s—when turpentine was used to clean fabrics. But now it’s an industry in transition amid growing demand for dry cleaning solvents that are less harmful to humans and the environment. At the center of this is a push to replace perchloroethylene (PERC), which is the most commonly used dry cleaning solvent. A range of new chemicals have come on the market, but there are risks because scientists are rarely able to assess a solvent’s long-term health effects before it’s used commercially. In this week’s episode we speak with Diana Ceballos, research scientist at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We’ll discuss why new dry cleaning solvents pose challenges for the industry and regulators, and what the U.S. can learn from Europe when it comes to chemical safety.

You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting iTunes, listen to it by following us on Soundcloud, and stream it on the Stitcher app.

Resources on dry cleaning chemicals

Guides to the dry cleaning industry from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Information on PERC from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Facts about the dry cleaning industry from the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, Washington, one of Ceballos’ research collaborators.

Download a fact sheet on alternative chemicals from The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute.