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Chemical Regulation

US EPA to regulate dry cleaning solvent

Dozens of perchloroethylene uses pose health risks to workers and consumers

by Britt E. Erickson
December 16, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 48


Shirts and jackets on hangers with plastic bags protecting them at a dry cleaner.
Credit: Shutterstock
The use of perchloroethylene as a dry-cleaning solvent poses health risks to workers and consumers, the EPA says.

Nearly all uses of perchloroethylene evaluated by the US Environmental Protection Agency present unreasonable risks to workers and consumers, the agency says in a final assessment released Dec. 14. Within the next year, the agency plans to propose regulations to reduce those risks.

Perchloroethylene, also known as perc, is acutely neurotoxic. Chronic exposure to the chemical increases the risk of liver cancer and neurological, kidney, liver, and immunological effects, the EPA says.

The chemical is primarily used to make fluorinated refrigerants and as a solvent for dry-cleaning clothes and degreasing industrial equipment. It is also found in numerous products, including brake cleaners, lubricants, sealants, and polishes.

All consumer uses of perchloroethylene, including skin exposure to clothing cleaned with the chemical, pose unreasonable risks, the EPA says. Numerous occupational uses also pose health risks to workers, the agency says. The EPA found no unreasonable risks to aquatic organisms in the environment, in contrast to its draft assessment released in April. That draft assessment said that aquatic organisms would be harmed by use of perchloroethylene as an intermediate, as a petroleum processing aid, and from recycling and disposal of the chemical.

The EPA did not evaluate the risks of perchloroethylene exposure to the general population from water, air, or soil. The agency claims that such risks are addressed by other EPA programs. Perchloroethylene is one of the first 10 chemicals the EPA is evaluating under 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

“EPA is moving immediately to risk management for this chemical and will work as quickly as possible to propose and finalize actions to protect against the unreasonable risks,” the agency says.

In the meantime, workers who use perchloroethylene should follow the label on products and applicable workplace regulations, including using personal protective equipment when needed, the EPA says. Consumers can limit their exposure by avoiding products containing perchloroethylene and not wearing garments that have been recently dry cleaned with the solvent, the agency says.



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