CHICAGO — The Chicago Tribune recently published the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute’s (DLI) CEO Bill Fisher’s response to the paper’s July 26 article, “Dry cleaners leave a toxic legacy: Despite cleanup effort, chemicals still taint hundreds of Illinois sites.” The paper’s original story claims that “the often sloppy use of perchloroethylene has poisoned hundreds of sites in Illinois.”
In his response, “Cleaners’ cleanup efforts,” published Aug. 4, Fisher downplays the harmful effects of perc that the Tribune article mentions, saying, “The largest and most scientifically run study of workers who have been exposed to perc found no evidence of any increase in cancer.”
Fisher’s article also points out that the majority of drycleaners followed what was considered to be safe drycleaning practices at the time, and that the industry has been proactive in its efforts to clean up contaminated sites.
“Forty years of growing environmental understanding and responsibility has given us the luxury of 20/20 hindsight as we look at past practices — but that should not be used for 20/20 pot-shotting,” he says.
Fisher explains that at the time most of the contamination occurred, it was legal to dispose of perc through wastewater lines. The problem was that, unknown to drycleaners, sewer lines leak. “As our industry first learned around 1990, sewer lines are expected to lose 20% to 50% of the water that passes through them (and in some cases more), depending on the age and the condition of the sewer.
“In short, most of the contamination that resulted from drycleaners came about from leakage from sanitary sewers in which most people thought that the water was actually carried to the municipal treatment plant.”
Fisher compares the actions of drycleaners to those of consumers in the past. “Phosphate detergents were used for decades in home washing machines, and we now know the pollution problems that phosphates have caused in our lakes and waterways. At the time, consumers had no idea of these problems. Was the situation with our industry’s use of perc in previous decades any different?”
Fisher also pointed out that as soon as contamination issues began to surface, the drycleaning industry was one of the few to be proactive in reducing consumption and exposure. “Our industry now uses 95% less perc than it did at [the time of contamination],” Fisher says. “Our industry has also gone to the legislatures of numerous states, and in 13 (including Illinois) has been successful in having cleanup funds established.”
According to Fisher, the drycleaning industry has actually handled contamination better than many other industries. “Can anyone name any other industry other than drycleaning that stepped up to the plate when it realized that it had unwittingly contributed to pollution, and which then took the initiative to go to the legislature to establish a cleanup fund to be paid for solely by the industry to take care of the problem?”