Chlorinated Solvents – An Invisible Menace

Aug 11, 2016

Environmental Enlightenment #196

Cancer is the #1 killer in America.


water droplets on glass panel

The number of cancer deaths in the US in 2006 was 559,888 in a population of 297 million.

This translates to 1,885 cancer death per million: 1,534 cancer deaths per day, or one every 46 seconds.

On February 10, 2012, US EPA released its final assessment of perchloroethylene (aka perc or PCE). The agency concluded that this widely used dry-cleaning solvent was a likely human carcinogen.

The agency also concluded that animal testing and other data showed that lifetime daily ingestion at low levels of the solvent could cause neurological, kidney, immune, and other problems.

Perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, has been detected in hundreds of hazardous waste sites, in groundwater, in surface water as well as in air, soil, food, and breast milk.

EPA will use the assessment to derive cleanup levels for indoor air contaminated by intrusion of vapors of perc coming from subterranean contaminated soil or groundwater.

California’s analysis found perc to be more hazardous than EPA’s assessment did.

PCE in the environment slowly breaks down to other carcinogenic and/or harshly toxic substances such as trichloroethylene (aka TCE), dichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride.

Trichloroethylene, also known as trichloroethene, TCE, trichlor, Trike, Tricky and tri, is a highly toxic central nervous system depressant. Workplace exposure is associated with toxic effects in the liver and kidney. It is carcinogenic in animals, reasonably anticipated human carcinogen, and a potential kidney carcinogen. A six-fold increase in Parkinson’s risk is associated with TCE workplace exposure.

PCE and TCE have historically been in use as degreasing agents in metal forming and finishing operations, and in various operations that required degreasing of metal parts. Carburetor cleaners are one example. 

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PCE and TCE (mostly PCE) have long been used as cleaning agents within the dry-cleaning industry.

The physical characteristics of dry-cleaning chemicals enable them to infiltrate concrete slabs and underlying soil with ease and reach groundwater fast.

A few ounces of dry-cleaning solvent reaching groundwater could present a cleanup cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

(Source: Washoe County NV Water Resources Department)


Vapor intrusion is the migration of volatile chemicals from the subsurface into overlying buildings. Volatile chemicals in buried wastes and/or contaminated groundwater can emit vapors that may migrate through subsurface solid and into air spaces of overlying buildings. (United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Evaluating the Vapor Intrusion into Indoor Air,” November 2002; EPA530-F-02-052;

(Source: US EPA)


The image at the right is of a spill of perchloroethylene (perc) at a dry-cleaners establishment. It shows detection of perc in the subsurface soil vapor. The levels are higher at the source zone and spread out in diminishing levels toward peripheral residential properties.


According to the United States Department of Commerce 2007 Economic Census, there were 39,484 businesses in the United States that provided dry-cleaning and laundry services. This includes dry-cleaning facilities, coin-operated dry-cleaning and laundering facilities, linen supply, uniform rental and industrial laundering facilities. (

Soil and groundwater contaminated by dry-cleaning solvent is likely associated with most of these facilities that used solvents. One study estimates that 75% of all dry-cleaning facilities are contaminated.

In addition to active dry-cleaning facilities, a large but unknown number of former dry-cleaning sites are also contaminated.

Since dry-cleaning facilities are located in urban areas, dry-cleaning solvent contamination has impacted a significant number of private and public water supply wells and threatens many other well fields. More recently, vapor intrusion has been identified as a significant environmental issue associated with contamination from volatile organic compounds.

The cost of cleaning up a site that is contaminated with dry-cleaning solvents can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most dry-cleaning operators have been unable to afford the cost of the cleanup, a typical problem not unlike that of petroleum leaking underground storage tanks (LUSTs).

Korea Times New York reported on May 18, 2006 that Korean dry-cleaning business owners average $200,000 in annual sales. (

In the case of petroleum leaking USTs, it was determined that the responsibility for the cleanup of contamination from releases into the environment extended beyond the UST owner/operators to the society that participates in the consumption and use of the fuels.

Thus, UST cleanup agencies were established at state levels as funding mechanisms where fees were placed on those using the fuels to provide the funding.

In California, the fee is $0.02 for every gallon that is loaded into petroleum storage tanks (mostly gasoline/diesel station tanks). This fee is transferred to the consumer at the pump.

The situation with the contamination resulting from dry-cleaning operations is more serious than petroleum leaking USTs.

One can say that the responsibility for the cleanup should extend beyond the owner/operators who operated legally to include at a minimum those in society who participate in the consumption of dry-cleaning products and services.

In 1996, the EPA supported the establishment of The State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners. The Coalition’s primary objective is the exchange of information between members about implementation issues, site assessment and remediation technologies

So far, 13 states joined the program with Connecticut being the most recent member to join. Existing members are Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. (Links to Dry Cleaner Cleanup Fund Programs of these states are inserted at the end of this letter.)

These states faced their responsibilities on the issue of chlorinated solvents and decided to take steps to counteract this environmental menace and stop its subsequent hazardous contamination.

A decade long question is, when will California establish its chlorinated solvent cleanup fund program? Will California be the last or never? Time is overdue to address this menace.

Addressing the issue of petroleum leaking USTs has been vital.

The menace of chlorinated solvents is real, tangible, and even more alarming.


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