Lawmakers aim to phase out dry-cleaning chemical with a dirty reputation
- A new bill would ban the use of perchloroethylene, an effective but harmful chemical, in the dry cleaning industry
- Contamination threatens Michiganders’ health and costs taxpayers millions to clean up
- But cleaners contend they can use the product responsibly while phasing it out on their own terms
Some of the dirtiest sites in Michigan are connected to businesses that pride themselves on getting your clothes sparkling clean.
Now, a bill in the Legislature aims to phase out a dry-cleaning solvent that gets stains out of sportcoats, but has caused contamination that poses a health threat and costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually to clean up.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, would make Michigan the latest state to ban perchloroethylene from the dry cleaning industry. As Michigan struggles to remediate tens of thousands of sites contaminated by a host of industries, Rogers said a ban would help keep at least a portion of that list from growing.
Dry cleaning properties across Michigan have contaminated soil and groundwater from past practices that included pouring used perchloroethylene into the ground or storing it in underground tanks that often leaked.
The bill has some early bipartisan support and — after some concessions to industry groups — the Michigan Cleaners Association and Michigan Chemistry Council are not fighting it.
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But some individual businesses say they feel singled out for a substance that is widely used in other industries. And they fear new regulations could be the death knell for cleaners already struggling amid rapid changes to the way Americans live and dress.
A powerful cleaner, a toxic pollutant
Commercialized in the 1930s, perchloroethylene is valued for its ability to dissolve organic matter, making it a powerful cleaning agent. Also known as tetrachloroethylene, PCE or perc, it gets stains out of clothing, cleans brake pads and degreases metal.
“Even (dry) cleaners that have transitioned (to other solvents), they will tell you that by far perc is the best solvent to clean hard-to-clean clothes,” said Michelle Batora, executive director of the Michigan Cleaners Association.
But what cleaners and regulators didn’t know for several decades after perc hit the market is that it’s also toxic. Short-term exposure can irritate the skin and lungs. Over time, perchloroethylene can cause neurological damage and harm the kidneys, liver, immune system and blood.
It also doesn’t break down easily, meaning releases from decades ago continue to pollute Michigan today. And it easily evaporates into the air, seeping from contaminated soil or groundwater to pollute homes and businesses. More recent research has linked these harmful vapors, known as volatile organic compounds, to reproductive issues such as preterm births.
“It can negatively affect the fetus when the mother is exposed,” said Laura Treemore-Spears, program coordinator at the Wayne State University Center for Leadership in Environmental Awareness and Research, which focuses on the health impacts of volatile organic compounds. “It can result in chronic inflammation, even into adulthood.”
Unaware of those hazards and under no requirements to do otherwise, dry cleaners used to dump wastewater containing perc down floor drains or onto the ground outside their buildings. The result was widespread contamination.
In the past three years alone, state taxpayers have spent more than $7 million to clean up contamination at former dry cleaners, according to figures provided by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
From Baldwin to Ann Arbor, workplaces and homes have been evacuated after fumes wafted up from underground. And with at least 2,200 current and former dry cleaning sites in Michigan, the tab is likely to grow. One study estimates about three-quarters of all dry cleaning facilities are contaminated.
But dry cleaners note that practices have changed since federal environmental regulations took hold in the latter part of the last century. EGLE now performs yearly inspections at facilities that use perchloroethylene, and modern dry cleaners operate on a “closed-loop system,” said Batora, of the dry cleaners’ group, which keeps solvents out of the environment.
“They’re doing all of the double checks to make sure there are no leaks.”
A push for “proactive” policy
Rogers’ bill, House Bill 4083, would ban the manufacture of dry cleaning solvents containing perchloroethylene starting in December 2031, with sales banned in June 2032, and use banned in December 2032.
An earlier version of the bill would have banned dry cleaners from using perc by December 2028, but Rogers extended the timeline by four years in response to concerns from the industry.
The bill would also create a state fund to help cleaners cover the expensive cost of replacing perchloroethylene-based systems with alternative methods.
“While we cannot go back in time and prevent the contamination of groundwater and our soils,” Rogers said, “we can stop making more brownfields and prevent future discharges to the environment.”
The House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee approved the bill in a 7-2 vote in March and it’s now awaiting a floor vote. The measure has some bipartisan support — Republican Rep. Douglas Wozniak is a cosponsor — but a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Matt Hall did not respond to a request for comment on whether a significant portion of Republicans support the bill.
EGLE supports it, with spokesperson Jill Greenberg saying phasing out the chemical would “serve to protect the environment and health of Michigan residents.”
The bill also has support from several statewide environment and health groups. The Michigan Chemistry Council and the Michigan Cleaners Association, representing dry cleaners and companies that manufacture chemicals, are neutral after Rogers agreed to give cleaners more time to phase out the chemical.
If passed, the bill would add Michigan to a small but growing list of states that have phased out perchloroethylene in dry cleaning. Minnesota lawmakers approved a ban in 2021 that takes effect in 2026. A ban in California took effect in January. Other states have set up special taxes on perchloroethylene, funneling the money to a fund that pays for cleanups at contaminated dry cleaners.
“It boggles my mind that we use very harmful chemicals when there are other options, just because it's what we've always done, or it's the cheapest thing,” said Melissa Cooper Sargent, an environmental health advocate with the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor-based environmental and public health group.
Alternatives include silicone or petroleum-based solvents, or wet cleaning techniques that are safe on dry-clean only clothes. But switching requires new equipment that can cost $50,000 or more per machine.
Steve Fry, owner of Presidential Cleaners in Brighton, called the legislation the latest hit for an already struggling industry. First came COVID, which briefly shut down dry cleaners and brought about a work-from-home culture that allows employees to swap suits for sweatpants. Then came inflation that has raised the price of hangers, solvents and heating bills.
“If you had a mortgage payment or a lot of equipment payments, you were in deep water,” Fry said.
He said he has watched half of the dry cleaners in Livingston County close since 2020. His business thrived by absorbing customers from former competitors. But he worries about smaller shops that operate on thin margins.
Fry also said he feels singled out, when the chemical is still allowed in other industries, from metal platers to auto repair shops, that have polluted Michigan’s land and water. There are no bills in circulation that would ban perchloroethylene from those industries.
“Dry cleaners are such a small part of perchloroethylene use,” Fry said. “Why just the dry cleaners?”
Indeed, at a public hearing on the bill, Rep. David Martin, R-Davison, proposed amendments that would have extended the ban to all industries.
“If it’s such a hazard to Michigan residents that work in dry cleaning, it should be a hazard and recognize the hazard to every Michigander,” Martin said.
But the amendments were rejected after chemical industry representatives in the room indicated they would fight the bill if such a change was made, and after Committee Chair Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, raised issues with the wording of Martin’s proposal.
“I’m hoping this isn’t the end of the conversation,” Pohutsky said, “because I would very much like to see some legislation that does exactly this.”
Rogers said her past experience on the Kalamazoo County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority Board led her to believe that dry cleaners are a good starting point. Taxpayers always seemed to be shelling out money to remediate sites with perchloroethylene. And dry cleaners, which exist in nearly every community, are a frequent culprit.
Rogers said she’s not interested in putting dry cleaners out of business. That’s why her bill would create a state fund to help cover the cost of making the switch. But infusing the fund with money would require action from lawmakers during the state budgeting process.
“I feel like we put together a really good, fair, phase-out approach,” Rogers said.
While lawmakers consider the ban, some are calling for broader reforms to prevent contamination from a host of industries, and protect taxpayers from being stuck with the bill.
Michigan once extended cleanup liability to current and past owners or operators of contaminated sites, and set aggressive cleanup standards. But amid complaints that overly-strict laws were dissuading redevelopment, lawmakers rewrote the law in the mid-90s to limit private liability and prioritize containment over cleanup.
That created some 12,000 so-called “orphan” sites — gas stations, dry cleaners, auto factories and other contaminated properties whose former owners are long gone, leaving the public to cover cleanup costs.
It also allowed pollution to be left in place, so long as it was cordoned off from the public. It’s not clear whether lawmakers understood then that chemicals poured into the ground like perchloroethylene eventually morph into toxic vapors.
Now that the risks are better known, said Cooper Sargent of the Ecology Center, Michigan lawmakers should consider closing regulatory gaps that allow contamination to linger underground.
“There's nowhere else in the world like Michigan with all this freshwater right here,” she said. “We want to protect it, and our people.”
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