EPA Admits Proposal to Ban Essential Dry Cleaning Chemical Won’t Help The Environment

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June 14, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency says its own rule proposal to ban a chemical used by many dry cleaners would have little impact on the environment, but its effects "could be devastating" for small businesses across the country, according to industry experts.

The agency says perchloroethylene, or PCE, "does not present an unreasonable risk to the environment," but aims to ban the chemical because it causes health problems. Cleaning industry experts say that the EPA is overestimating the chemical’s health hazards, and placing an unnecessary burden on 6,000 dry cleaners across the country that use it, many of which are small businesses.

"This proposed rule is not likely to have significant effects on the environment because PCE does not present an unreasonable risk to the environment," reads the text of the proposed rule. The agency says it was unable to determine "the number of dry cleaning facility closures that may be associated."

Though the EPA is primarily tasked with environmental issues, it says it has the authority to ban PCE thanks to the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Biden administration has proposed a number of politically motivated regulations under the guise of protecting health. In February, the Department of Energy proposed a rule that would effectively ban half of all natural gas stoves in circulation based on a questionable study on the health impact of natural gas in the household.

PCE is not only used for dry cleaning, but also the manufacturing of petroleum, which the administration is attempting to curtail.

Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association, told the Washington Free Beacon that dry cleaners will feel the economic pain of a ban, even if the rule would phase out the chemical gradually. A washing machine using the chemical typically lasts around 15-20 years, and "if you ask somebody to replace a machine they bought a year ago, in 10 years, they lost a third to a half" of the lifespan. "It’s enough to throw your hands up and say, ‘What am I doing,’" she added.

"Many people that we rely on have stated very clearly that the risk is very much overstated," Jon Meijer, director of membership for the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute (DLI), told the Free Beacon. Similarly, Nealis called the EPA’s assessment "overly cautious."

An EPA spokesman downplayed the economic impact of its ban, and said it believes machines using the chemical are being phased out in the industry.

"EPA consulted with small businesses, industry trade associations, and State and local agencies to better understand the use of PCE in dry cleaning," the agency told the Free Beacon. "Based on this engagement, the Agency understands that very few PCE machines are being produced or sold in the U.S. market today and that the use of PCE overall in dry cleaning is declining as older machines are retired and alternatives are adopted."

But Nealis and Meijer both emphasized that the rule would be exceptionally burdensome on smaller cleaning businesses, especially in the wake of the economic devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased adoption of remote work and relaxed dress codes at businesses have caused many dry cleaners to close.

"They’re just coming out of COVID — one third of the industry, just gone, just doesn't exist anymore," said Meijer.

During the public comment period for the regulation, the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute plans to ask the EPA to extend the phaseout period from 10 to 15 years, to give cleaners a chance to recoup the costs of expensive PCE machines, Meijer said.

Nealis said her association will implore the agency to have a "rational approach" to eliminating the use of PCE. "We're going to call to their attention the useful life of a well-maintained machine, that the exposures are de minimis, and that the cleaners need time."

"There are health effects to bankruptcy too," Nealis added.