It’s time to shed light on a significant issue that has largely gone unnoticed.
- The Problem with Dry Cleaning Chemicals
Dry cleaners have been using a chemical called tetrachloroethylene (PERC or PCE) since the 1930s. This chemical became the standard for dry cleaning in the United States. Initially, dry cleaning was done off-site in factories, but with the advent of in-shop machines, it became possible to do it right at the strip mall.
However, this convenience has led to a severe problem. Most strip malls that ever had a dry cleaning business are now contaminated with PCE.
- What Is PCE, and How Does It Harm Us?
PCE is a colorless liquid that effectively removes grease from clothing without damaging the fabric. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified PCE as a likely human carcinogen. It has been linked to various cancers and can impair cognitive and motor function.
- How Do We Get Exposed to PCE?
PCE can evaporate from soil and groundwater, seeping into the indoor air of buildings, affecting the people inside. Even if a dry cleaner operated at a strip mall decades ago, there’s a good chance that PCE is still present in the air.
- Does PCE Ever Go Away on Its Own?
No, PCE does not naturally break down. Improper disposal of even a small amount of PCE, like pouring it into a sewer or onto the ground, can have long-lasting consequences.
- The Persistent Threat
PCE is a heavy chemical that sinks into the soil, moves through groundwater, and eventually rises into the indoor air we breathe. This contamination is beneath many strip malls, making its way up into buildings over time.
- The Difficulty of Cleanup
Cleaning up these sites is a challenging task, and there are no foolproof technologies available. The most successful method is often complete excavation, which can be expensive. One strip mall owner received an estimate of $2.3 million for cleanup, and even then, there’s no guarantee of success.
- Lack of Awareness
Many contaminated sites go unnoticed because property owners who aren’t selling or refinancing have no incentive to investigate. However, lenders and informed buyers order Phase 1 Environmental reports to check for a history of dry cleaning operations. If a dry cleaner existed, further testing is recommended, which can be costly.
- The Good News: A Simple Solution
While complete cleanup is almost impossible, there is a simple way to remove the ongoing danger. Installing a Soil Vapor Extraction system involves placing pipes in the ground connected to a vacuum pump, which effectively reduces indoor air PCE levels.
- A Win-Win Solution
To address this problem, we propose the introduction of a PCE Safe Harbor Program by the EPA. Property owners who agree to install and maintain a vapor extraction system, and regularly sample and report indoor air quality, can be exempt from expensive and often impossible cleanup efforts. This win-win solution protects the health of occupants, property owners, and the environment.
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