There is nothing “dry” about dry cleaning, and little that’s clean about it, either. Statewide, an estimated 1,500 dry cleaners – both operating and defunct – have potentially contaminated the water, dirt and/or air with toxic solvents.
PERC, or perchloroethylene, is the solvent most widely used at dry cleaners. Your clothes are essentially bathed in it. (You’ll never look at those velvet pants the same way again.)
The Environmental Protection Agency classifies PERC as a likely carcinogen, and it can damage the brain and nervous system. (Isn’t taffeta looking less attractive by the minute?)
PERC can leak and spill from dry cleaning containers, or in less savory circumstances, be intentionally dumped. Whatever the cause, the effect is contaminated indoor air, dirt and groundwater, the latter of which can trespass well beyond the original property.
One of PERC’s many problems is that over time, it breaks down and becomes TCE, or trichloroethylene, a spelling bee word if there ever was one. Short-term exposure to TCE in indoor air raises a risk for fetal heart malformation during a woman’s first trimester of pregnancy.
(And it can come from other sources than dry cleaning. That solvent was found in the drinking water of several homes in Stony Hill, a Wake Forest subdivision, in 2006. It came from a shed where a business used the solvent to cleaned circuit boards and then poured it into a pipe that went right into the ground. That’s seriously bad karma.)
None of this is good news for the 1,500 potentially contaminated sites in North Carolina. Of those, NC Department of Environmental Quality has certified 361 into its Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup program. This interactive map shows the location of the program sites. Click on the symbol to learn more about each one.
Under the Dry Cleaning Solvent Cleanup program (often known as DSCA, after the 1997 legislation that created it) a dry cleaner or current property owner voluntarily enters the program and then must meet specific requirements to be certified. If the cleaners are still in business, they’re subject to state inspection.
Once certified, the property can then be cleaned up using mostly state funds; the property owner pays 1 to 2 percent of the cost. The state funds come from taxes on dry cleaning services and the sale of solvents. But the fund balance has dropped significantly, from a peak of $37.5 million to $5.6 million as of June 30. Less money is coming in, and more is going out, as new sites are discovered and the costs of complex clean ups increase.
According to DEQ, the average cost to clean up a site is $330,000. To remedy just the 361 certified sites would cost $120 million. DEQ has to prioritize the sites, presumably placing the ones that pose the greatest health and environmental risks at the top of the list.
A high-profile dry cleaning contamination case emerged in Durham in 2011. The cleaners, One-Hour Martinizing, had become a BB&T bank branch and then a church. Since the neighborhood along West Club Boulevard is on city water, no drinking water was contaminated. However, the air beneath the former business, a nearby church and two nearby homes on Dollar Avenue had high levels of TCE. A groundwater plume of solvents was also traveling north, toward a mall.
State contractors tore down the building and excavated 3,850 tons of PERC-contaminated soil. For context, that is equivalent to the maximum weight of 15 787 airliners at takeoff. The soil was vented, the groundwater and injected with PlumeStop, which is designed to.. well, stop the plume and reduce the amount of contamination.
Eliminating PERC altogether would at least halt future contamination. In fact, some environmentally friendly dry cleaners use carbon dioxide, which when pressurized, becomes a liquid. Add soap. It’s like a Soda Stream for your clothes.
If dry cleaning contamination interests you, and of course, it does, an annual report about the state of DSCA is due to the Environmental Management Commission this fall. Engage in a little bedtime reading by perusing last year’s. 2015-final-dry-cleaning-solvent-report
DSCA also has a working group, which meets Oct. 20 at DEQ’s headquarters, 217 W. Jones St., in Raleigh.