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Los Angeles Plans to Ban Dry-Cleaning Chemical - 2002-10-22

Officials in Los Angeles plan to ban a chemical commonly used by dry cleaners, which they say poses a cancer risk. An industry group is calling the proposal "overzealous."

The chemical is called perchlorethylene or "perc" for short, and environmental officials in southern California say it may be responsible for elevated cancer rates among workers at dry cleaners. The measure would require Los Angeles-area cleaners to switch from perc to non-toxic alternatives, for example, silicon-based solvents.

The area's 2,200 dry cleaners would be forced to phase out perc by 2019.

At least 80 percent of U.S. dry cleaners use the chemical, which is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local officials worry that federal regulations are not strict enough.

Tuesday, a group that wants the solvent phased out even sooner presented a dry cleaner who has made the switch to other solvents.

"I feel healthy, my workers feel healthy, my customers feel healthy, and the cost is about the same," he said.

But an industry group, the California Cleaners Association, says perc is safe. They note that the chemical has been widely used in the United States since the 1930s, and say studies suggesting it is potentially cancer-causing are inconclusive.

Lisa Burnfeld is a spokeswoman for the dry cleaners' association, most of whose members are small, family businesses. "If the dry cleaners felt at all that there was any cancer risk or any other kind of toxic risk that would harm anybody, they certainly would not be exposing themselves or their families or their workers to it," said Lisa Burnfeld.

The industry spokeswoman says the cost of converting to perc-free agents is too high for most Los Angeles cleaners, who have coped with increasingly stringent regulations for two decades. She adds that perc emissions have dropped by 80 percent since 1994, and says her association is suggesting a compromise a switch to high-efficiency cleaning machines, which would continue to use perc but cut emissions even further. A hearing on the question will take place November 1.