Eliminating the use of Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) in dry cleaning

Perchloroethylene, aka tetrachloroethylene, PCE or PERC, is commonly referred to as dry cleaning fluid even though it is widely used in a variety of other products and industries. Michael Faraday, the inventor of the Bunsen burner among other things, discovered PCE.

Before environmental regulation came of age, not a lot of thought was given to the environmental impacts of PCE or proper disposal methods. More than one dry-cleaning client told me it was a good weed killer. Not surprisingly, PCE is a common pollutant. It is present at more than half of the identified Superfund sites. PCE frequently appears as an uninvited guest at sites in concentrations sufficient to cause vapor intrusion concerns.

Technological advancements have resulted in more efficient dry-cleaning machines that use less PCE. There are also more friendly alternatives to PCE on the market. Now, there is a push to ban it altogether. A bill to end the manufacture, sale, and use of PCE was previously introduced in the Michigan Legislature. That bill failed to make it out of committee. An identical bill was recently introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives.

House Bill No. 4083 applies only to the manufacture, sale, and use of PCE for the dry-cleaning industry. Other uses are not affected. Any transition away from PCE will be expensive for dry cleaners especially the small mom and pop shops. The proposed bill provides for the establishment of a fund within the state treasury to assist dry cleaning facilities with securing alternative products.

Subsequent to the introduction of Michigan House Bill No. 4083, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(“EPA”) also proposed a ban on consumer use of PCE. A risk assessment performed by the EPA determined PCE presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment. Such a finding requires EPA to take action to reduce that risk.

In response, EPA has proposed a rule that would prohibit the manufacture, processing  and distribution of PCE for all consumer use. The rule would also apply to dry cleaning and spot cleaning operations. The rule would be implemented using a 10-year phaseout period. That period was chosen to take into account the number of dry-cleaning machines  currently in use and the life expectancy of those machines.

In addition to the ban on consumer use, the proposed rule restricts (but does prohibit)the manufacturing of PCE. It also would restrict but not ban all industrial and commercial uses. PCE is used in national security applications. It is also used in the manufacture of climate friendly refrigerants considered to be a temporary alternative to chlorofluorocarbons. Permissible uses under the rule would be subject to stricter workplace controls.