Clean Air Day 2016 – Helping America to Breathe Easier Since 1963

clean-air-dayClean Air Day is an opportunity to acknowledge how important air quality is to our health. Since 1963, December 17 has been a day to celebrate one of the first environmental laws in the United States – The Clean Air Act. Through collaboration, the EPA works with both state and local governments to ensure clean air for everyone. Among the biggest threats facing this campaign are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Common in thousands of household products, VOCs are invisible to the naked eye and can have serious effects on human health.

VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals commonly found in household and industrial products such as paints, varnishes, cleaning products, cosmetics, fuels, and even dry cleaned clothes. The effects of VOCs on human health can include irritation of the nose, eyes, or throat, and some VOCs have been linked to causing organ damage and cancer. Knowing the dangers of VOCs can help you plan to reduce exposure. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors than outdoors. Indoor levels can be up to 1,000 times outdoor levels during, and for several hours after, certain activities such as paint stripping or using aerosol sprays.

dry-cleaners-percThe EPA provides many steps on how to avoid VOCs both indoors and outdoors. Simple and effective steps such as proper ventilation and reduced use of pesticides can greatly improve the quality of air inside your home or building. For potentially hazardous products such as varnishes or fuel, it is important to read all warning labels and practice safe storage and handling. The EPA also advises to keep minimum exposure to chemicals such as benzene and perchloroethylene, or “perc,” a chemical commonly used for dry cleaning. Currently, there is no federally enforceable standard set for VOCs in non-industrial settings such as a home or small business. To learn more about VOCs, including current guidelines or recommendations set by various organizations, visit Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank.

Clean air, along with drinkable water, is one of the most precious resources on the planet. It is easy to find evidence of how air quality is impacting the health of millions of people around the globe. Unfortunately, you don’t have to live in the shadow of a smoke-spewing factory or next to a major freeway to be affected by polluted air. Even the interiors of businesses and residences can be subject to poor – and potentially dangerous – air quality due to VOCs. In some cases, VOCs have been detected in buildings from operations that occurred years before the site was repurposed. These sites often require mitigation to reduce concentrations of VOCs. Properties of closed gas stations and dry cleaners are among the most common examples of required VOC mitigation due to the volatile chemicals used for operations. The good news is that once the contaminated property — or brownfield — has been mitigated, it can often be used for any type of commercial or residential purpose, effectively turning it from a brownfield into a greenfield. In this way, mitigation has a real and tangible benefit to not only the property owner but also to the municipality in which the property is located and to the environment.

VOC-mitigationTo preserve and improve the health of all humans and other life on Earth, we must defend the planet’s air quality. The Clean Air Act has provided the basis for an effective means of limiting dangerous air pollutants for the last half century. This Act and its enforcement by the EPA has undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to set new standards for air quality management. Many western European nations have enacted similar legislation, which is a big step in the right direction for clean air!

Dry Cleaners, Solvents, and Health, Oh My

Dry cleaning can be a dirty business.

dry_cleaner_shirtsA staple of American corporate and family life for decades, dry cleaning poses environmental and health concerns due to the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process when not handled properly. Since the 1960’s, the majority of dry cleaners have utilized perchloroethylene, or perc, for their operations. Perc, which is also used to degrease metal machinery and in the manufacture of consumer products, is a known environmental and health hazard. While improved operational standards and modernized equipment have reduced impacts to soil and groundwater, there is still the risk of accidental spills, leaks, and contamination.

Human risks include non-cancerous effects such as kidney, liver, neurological, immune, and reproductive system damage, and risk increases proportionally to the amount and duration of exposure. High levels of brief perc exposure often produce symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, eye, and mucous membrane irritation, while long-term exposure can cause more serious problems. After laboratory testing of rats and mice as well as studies of dry cleaning industry workers, EPA has concluded that perc is a likely human carcinogen, and has included it as part of a category of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It is important to note, however, that there has been no indication of increased cancer risk from simply wearing dry cleaned clothing.

Tata & Howard tests for perc contamination

Perc can enter the air, water, and ground during the cleaning, purification, and waste disposal phases of dry cleaning. Perc is released into the air through windows and vents, and, after a few weeks, breaks down into toxic and ozone-destroying chemicals. Perc that enters the ground through spills and leaks is highly toxic to plants, and, because perc does not bind well to soil, it travels very quickly into surface water, groundwater, and drinking water supplies. Even the smallest amount of perc can contaminate a large volume of water and be toxic to marine life, and EPA has set a limit on the amount of perc that is allowed to be in drinking water due to its toxicity. In addition to being detected in air, soil, and water, perc has also been found in food and breast milk. In fact, the dangers of perc are so plainly evident that, in 2007, the state of California passed legislation requiring the total phase-out of perc by 2023. In response to this legislation, the number of statewide traditional dry cleaners has dropped from 4,000 to less than 2,000 while the number of chemical-free dry cleaners, dubbed “wet cleaners,” has tripled.

Unfortunately, studies have indicated that 75% of operational dry cleaning establishments as well as countless former dry cleaning sites are contaminated. Costs to mitigate contaminated sites can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, and many dry cleaners have simply been unable to afford the cost of cleanup. In an effort to assist dry cleaning business owners with these significant costs, 13 states have implemented programs to help with the cost of cleanup, and many more are considering such programs.

Established in 1998, the State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners (SCRD) is supported by the U.S. EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation and is comprised of representatives of states with dry cleaner remediation programs in place. The funding programs are as follows:states_dry_cleaner_funding

  • Alabama Drycleaning Environmental Response Trust Fund (DERTF)
  • Connecticut Drycleaning Establishment Remediation Program
  • Florida Drycleaning Solvent Cleanup Program
  • Illinois Drycleaners Environmental Response Trust Fund
  • Kansas Drycleaning Program
  • Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Drycleaner Fund
  • Missouri Drycleaner Environmental Response Trust (DERT) Fund
  • North Carolina Dry-Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act Program
  • Oregon Dry Cleaner Program
  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control: Drycleaning Restoration & Technical Assistance Section
  • Tennessee Drycleaner Environmental Response Program
  • Texas Dry Cleaning Remediation Program
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Dry Cleaning Environmental Response Program

States without specific dry cleaner programs may participate in SCRD as “Represented States” if they have active remediation programs under other authorities. Currently, Alaska, California, Delaware, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia are SCRD Represented States. In addition to these states, several others, including Massachusetts, are considering similar legislation. More information on these programs and resources can be found here.

With the increased burden of toxins on our environment, and with limited funding for remediation of dry cleaner sites, finding the most cost-effective and efficient means of mitigating site contamination is paramount. This includes second opinions, alternative mitigation techniques, and, in instances of pre-existing contamination, litigation. In the end, the most important factor is improving our health and the environment in which we live by reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals from the ground, water, and air. California may just have the right idea.