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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Cleaning

Air Date: Week of

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We hear lots of stories about efforts to ban chemicals. But Ingrid Lobet reports that for Koreans in the Los Angeles area a proposal to phase out the dry cleaning solvent perchloroethylene strikes close to home.


CURWOOD: Welcome to this encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. There are, in the United States, about 35,000 dry cleaners. Most are run by families. Many of those families are first generation Americans, and most of them spend tens of thousands of dollars on machines that wash clothes using a chlorinated solvent instead of water. That solvent, perchloroethylene or perc, turns out to be dangerous to human health. You don't want to breathe it and you don't want to drink it.

Concerns about contamination of groundwater have regulators in southern California pushing for a phase-out of perc. But as Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, some of the dry cleaners say perc is not that easy to give up, even if it is harmful.

LOBET: It's hard to imagine an industry that relies more on a single chemical than dry cleaning. So, when southern California air officials said they might phase out perchloroethylene, more than 500 owners, many of them Korean, left their shops for the day and packed a public hearing.


LOBET: The business owners rebuked air officials, saying they understated the costs of changing equipment, and overstated the risks of perc. Charles Kim of the Korean-American Coalition, likened the campaign against perc to the way Korean businesses suffered during the Los Angeles riots a decade ago.

KIM: Ten years after, Korean dry cleaners are here today and are feeling they were being victimized again. We're becoming the killers and polluters, and then you know, we're the cause of the problem. All of this bad air, bad water that we drink and breathe. Of course, who doesn't want to breathe clean air, and also drink clean water? We all do.

LOBET: Dry cleaners say they've clamped down dramatically on perc vapors, and regulators agree. But officials say their surveys show half of what is loaded into machines is still ending up in surrounding neighborhoods. UCLA's Dr. John Froines has studied perchloroethylene for more than a decade. He testified at the hearing.

FROINES: And I can say unequivocally that the evidence of the toxicity of perchloroethylene has increased in the past ten years.

LOBET: Back then he said perc was associated with cancers of the esophagus and cervix.

FROINES: New findings have indicated ovarian cancer in women, bladder cancer and other cancers of the female organs.

LOBET: The manufacturers of perc, including Dow Chemical, say the risk is far lower than regulators claim. The EPA lists perc as a possible or probable carcinogen. Dry cleaning owners insist it's too costly to replace perc machines with cleaner alternatives.

But privately, away from the glare, perc is a more personal story, woven into the lives of dry cleaning families. And some shop owners, like this one on the outskirts of LA, will tell you--perc is making them sick.



VOICEOVER: Well, to be quite frank with you, when it comes to perchloroethylene, this is a toxic substance. It is toxic.

LOBET: This shop owner asked us not to use his name, fearing pressure from the Korean-American Dry Cleaner's Association. Above us swung the laundered clothes of working people, in plaid and denim.



VOICEOVER: Basically, I've been in this business for about 16 years and lately I have begun to feel that maybe there is something not quite right with my breathing these days. Sometimes we end up inhaling the vapors, and sometimes we inhale a lot. That's when I start experiencing these sorts of problems, and just the feeling is just not good.

LOBET: His symptoms may not be related to perc, but in visits to other cleaners, people tell similar stories. Bill Pourdavoudi used to run his own shop. Now he sells dry cleaning equipment.


POURDAVOUDI: You know, I've been in this business 20 years. The reason I quit the job was the perc. I had the allergy. I couldn't continue. There’s so many problems, your kidney, your liver, skin problem, rash. Sometimes I get a rash, or sometimes getting headache. You don't realize. You don't realize right away, but after a while you will find out.

LOBET: But even though people, especially in the Korean community, have lived with perc for many years, rarely is it discussed publicly as a community health issue. Dr. Sue Young Chin works with KHEIR, a large Korean health organization in Los Angeles. She says it's a hard subject to broach because so much capital, so many dreams, are wrapped up in this one industry.

CHIN: People do get sick, and they don't know why they're getting sick. Because, you know, Korean immigrants aren't told "Well, these are the side effects of the chemicals." They invest all their money into this business. They need to get something out it; they can't afford to change, and then, their families getting sick. And, you know, the stakes are high.

LOBET: So common is dry cleaning among Koreans that few people are many steps removed from it. Dr. Angela Jo is a resident at a clinic in LA's Koreatown. I asked her how difficult it might be for a Korean physician to speak openly about the potential health effects of dry cleaning solvents. She sighed.

JO: Hmm. That's actually a tough question. You know, specifically because my parents are dry cleaning business owners, and, you know, they raised my siblings and me, and they sent two of us to medical school, and one is finishing up his Ph.D. So we have a lot to be grateful for, you know, for this small business that my dad and mom ran.

LOBET: Those, who like Dr. Jo, do favor gradually doing away with perchloroethylene, nearly always stress that the government must ease the cost of changing to an alternative: hydrocarbon solvent, silicon, liquid CO2, or wet cleaning. Estimates of this cost vary widely, from $30 to 90,000. In the San Francisco Bay area, one of out of every six cleaners is already using a perc alternative. But Paul Choe, president of the Korean American Dry Cleaner's Association, says the prospect of switching methods has him in knots.


PAUL CHO: I have to worry about my house payments and car payments and support my children's tuitions. At night when I go to bed, I get nervous, and I don't know what to do.

LOBET: Air officials vote on phasing out perc December 6. One proposal would let businesses keep using the solvent, but require they get newer perc technology. Another would make dry cleaners replace equipment as it becomes 15 years old with a cleaner alternative. In that case, the region would become the first in the country to force a phase out of perc.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC: XTC “Millions” Drums & Wires Artist Direct BMG (2002)]



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