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Chemical Regulation

Dry cleaning solvent poses health risks to workers and consumers

US EPA draft evaluation finds neurological effects associated with exposure to perchloroethylene

by Britt E. Erickson
April 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 17


Young woman worker with a paper receipt looking for a dry-cleaned garment.
Credit: Shutterstock
Perchloroethylene solvents used by some dry cleaners pose health risks to workers and consumers, a draft EPA assessment finds.

A chemical widely used for dry cleaning, degreasing industrial equipment, and production of fluorinated refrigerants poses unreasonable health risks to workers and consumers, the US Environmental Protection Agency says in a draft assessment released on April 27. The chemical, perchloroethylene or perc, is associated with acute neurotoxic effects and poses long-term risks of cancer and neurological, kidney, liver, immune, and developmental effects, the agency finds.

The EPA emphasizes that the evaluation is only a draft and any risks found, including those associated with dry cleaning, “are preliminary and do not require any action at this time.” The agency claims that the use of perchloroethylene in dry cleaning has been decreasing as facilities shift to new technologies and safer alternatives. Even so, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, an industry group, estimated in a 2017 letter to the EPA that 70% of dry cleaners use the solvent because it is nonflammable.

The EPA evaluated short- and long-term inhalation and dermal exposures to perchloroethylene in workers and consumers. For workers, the agency found unreasonable risks—primarily neurological effects—for nearly all evaluated uses when personal protective equipment was not used. The agency did not find such risks for workers who use perchloroethylene in a laboratory setting. For consumers, the EPA found risks of neurological effects associated with skin exposure to clothes cleaned with perchloroethylene.

Perchloroethylene is one of 10 chemicals already on the market that the EPA prioritized first for health risk evaluation under 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency has yet to finalize any of the assessments, but it has now released draft versions for all of the 10 chemicals. Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the EPA is moving ahead with the 10 assessments in hopes of meeting a June deadline to complete them all.

The EPA is expected to finalize the perchloroethylene assessment after it receives input from its chemical advisory committee and comments from the public. The advisory committee is planning to meet virtually May 26–29 to discuss the draft assessment.


This story was updated on April 30, 2020, to remove an incorrect statement that perchloroetheylene is used as a solvent to produce fluorinated refrigerants. Perchloroethylene is an intermediate in fluorinated refrigerant production. It is used as a solvent in dry cleaning and degreasing.



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