New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has announced several initiatives to protect dry cleaning workers from the effects of harmful chemicals like perchlorethylene (perc), a solvent widely used in the dry cleaning industry. He recently called for more research to be done about perc’s potential harm and may tighten the rules as a result. This has some dry cleaners worried about what this coils mean for business.
At a July 20 press conference in Albany, the governor explained why these initiatives were important. “The federal EPA says that ‘perc’ is a likely carcinogen, and we have workers who work with it every day with little training and little protection, because that is the job that they can get,” the governor said.
This announcement wasn’t a surprise for dry cleaners who use perc. In 2006, prior to the state’s recent movement to ban perc, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited perc dry cleaning machines from operating in residential buildings. According to these rules, existing dry cleaning operations would have to stop cleaning with perc and switch to an alternative solvent machine or else they move to a nonresidential building by 2020. Under the governor’s initiative, depending on the results of the new research, the state may move the 2020 deadline even earlier and require all dry cleaners who use perc to replace their machines, no matter what type of building they are located in.
He also urged the Department of Health and the Department for Environment Protection to come up with regulations for the disposal of perc. “That’s going to make a difference in people’s lives. Not just the dry cleaning industries, home healthcare, car wash industries,” he said.
The new initiatives are meant to improve dry cleaners’ health and safety, but dry cleaners in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill who are already preparing the transition to non-perc dry cleaning solution say that they feel more pressure following the announcement. In Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, there are seven dry cleaning establishments that use perc onsite.
Kimmy, 45, an owner of Fulton Cleaners in Fort Greene who doesn’t want to give her full name because she fears damage to her business, said her own story proves the harmlessness of perc. “I’ve been working in dry cleaners since I was 21, soon after I immigrated to the States,” she said. Kimmy worked and learned from her relatives who still own dry cleaners in various locations on the East coast. Kimmy pointed to pictures of her 5-year-old son. “Ever since then, I’ve had no health issues whatsoever,” she said. “I even gave birth to a healthy child.”
Kimmy has mainly operated dry cleaners in Brooklyn throughout her career, “I’m not convinced with the sTate’s measures,” she said. “We comply with many regulations that continues to be added once in a while.”
The DEP inspects dry cleaners every three years to take perc readings and check whether they exceed recommended levels. Kimmy said her shop also goes through an annual facility inspection under state law.
Dry cleaners in New York that use perc must already abide by 13 regulations governed by the Health Departments of both New York City and state, and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), according to the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association in New York. The current regulations guiding how to handle perc, include installing a glass wall to quarantine perc machines and a ventilation system inside the machines that capture vapor to prevent workers from inhaling airborne perc.
“Dry Cleaners in Connecticut aren’t required to put perc machines into an isolated room with ventilation system,” Kimmy said. “If it’s actually harmful for everyone exposed to airborn perc, why are they trying to ban the chemical only in New York? It’s such an irony.”
As reported in Crain’s New York in an investigation this year, New Jersey considered banning perc based on EPA’s requirement, but unlike New York, decided not to after dry cleaners protested.
Replacing perc machines involves new regulations, permits and licenses associated with the new dry cleaning machines. For her business in Fort Greene to comply with the new rules, Kimmy would have to purchase a non-perc machine, hire a contractor to install it, add a sprinkler system, and pay to apply for permits in multiple agencies regarding those new systems. This means additional costs of up to $100,000, she says.
Another owner, Mrs. Kim, who declined to identify her full name and her business for the same reason as Kimmy, has been running a dry cleaner for four years on Clinton Hill’s Myrtle Ave. but who has been in the industry with her husband for 25 years. She sighed when asked if they could accept the upcoming change. “I’m working from sunrise to sunset stuck in this place,” she said. “If we replace our machine, I’m not sure how long it would take to pay off that amount of cost. It may leave us no other options than relinquish our decadeslong business.”
The measure to ban all perc comes at a difficult time, when mom-and-pop dry cleaners are already struggling for business. “People seem to prefer washing their close in drop-off laundromats, wearing less clothes for dry cleaning service,” Mrs. Kim said as she awaited customers. “The whole industry is in a slump.”
The Korean American Dry Cleaners Association in New York is a coalition of dry cleaners that was established to bridge the gap between business and the government. According to them, 80 percent of the dry cleaning businesses are owned by Korean Americans.
“The machine replacement requirement will eventually be in effect,” said Sang Seok Park, president of the association. “It’s a matter of time. The real concern is, how many current dry cleaners would stay in business by 2020?”
The association met with Ron Kim, a State Assembly member in Queens, on July 13, to ask for state funds to support dry cleaners replacing dry cleaning machines. The Korean-American politician promised to apply for a grant in the next fiscal year, according to the Association.
Although the strong measures to replace perc machines are imminent, the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association could not decide which alternative solvent solution to recommend to perc cleaners, because “we’re not sure about the efficiency and cleaning performance, comparing to perc,” Park said.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation(DEC) provides a list of 10 approved alternatives to using perc solvents for dry cleaners on their website. They mostly include hydrocarbon, a petroleum-based product that requires a lot of heat and pressure, and is relatively expensive. The DEC stated that none of the listed alternative solvents is a drop-in replacement for perc, and facilities with dry cleaning machines using hydrocarbon solvents are subject to additional regulatory requirements.
Kimmy does not think that the alternatives can do a better job of getting stains out than perc. She hopes the agencies compare all possible alternative solutions with perc thoroughly. “I’ll comply with new rules,” she said. “We’ll do our best, but the customers will be eventually be affected by the poor performance of the alternatives.”