The most commonly-used stain remover at New York City dry cleaners is a "likely carcinogen" according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and has been linked to headaches, dizziness and even liver and kidney failure among dry cleaner workers who are exposed to it on a daily basis. Crain's today published an in-depth investigation into the dangers of perchloroethylene, known as 'perc' in the industry, which also poses health risks to New Yorkers who live above street-level dry cleaners.

The EPA launched perc regulation efforts in the early 1990s, but enforcement has been lax to date. And in New York City, where more than 60% of mom-and-pop dry cleaners are operated by Korean-American immigrants, upgrades to safer, environmentally-friendly compounds have proven cost-prohibitive. (It doesn't help that the dry cleaning industry as a whole is on the decline, with fewer Americans buying clothing that calls for the service; the industry's overall revenue has dropped 13% in the last decade.)

Despite its lurid chemical makeup, the sweet-scented cleaning agent is highly effective at removing stains. "The thing about perc is people really don't care," Daniel Lee, a dry cleaner owner on East 23rd Street, told Crain's. "They want the job done right and don't care much about how it's done."

The EPA mandated in the mid-2000s that all dry cleaners that use perc vacate residential buildings by 2020, but with the deadline fast approaching many New Yorkers are still exposed—Crain's sites a 2009 study that identified 400 perc dry cleaners located in apartment buildings, exposing an estimated 2.3 million New Yorkers to the chemical.

The outlet also found that one in five of the 10,000 workers at 3,500 dry cleaners in New York City are exposed on a daily basis.

Here's a primmer on perc—its pervasiveness and associated health risks, as well as governmental efforts to regulate it—culled from Crain's reportage:

  • Perc is dangerous when inhaled heavily and consistently. Unfortunately, humans can't detect that sweet smell until concentration hits 6,000 micrograms per cubic meter, or about 200 times the recommended maximum.
  • NYC dry cleaners are required to post a sign if they're using perc, but landlords are not legally obligated to notify tenants who live above dry cleaners of the associated health risks. A 2013 Environmental Research study found an average of 106 micrograms per cubic meter in NYC apartments near dry cleaners—more than triple the State Health Department's 30 microgram safety threshold. Children are more at risk than adults, since they "inhale more air relative to their size."
  • In 1997, New York State ruled that dry-cleaning machines had to be replaced with newer models that wash and dry clothes, so that workers would no longer have to carry containers of perc-soaked clothing between machines. But store owners were given until 2005 to make replacements; many of the perc machines used today are about 20 years old—an age at which they start leaking fumes.
  • The City does not have an established system for regulating dry-cleaning emissions.
  • Many dry cleaners that advertise as 'eco-friendly' use an alternative stain remover called Green Earth, which is made up primarily of microscopic particles of sand. Experts say it's significantly safer, but D5, its active ingredient, has been linked to cancer in rats.
  • The cost of replacing two dry-cleaner machines is estimated to be about $150,000—a steep expenditure for a mom-and-pop shop.

The Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on efforts to discourage the use of perc in residential buildings, ahead of the 2020 ban. The Department of Environmental Protection inspects dry-cleaners every three years, and workers are supposed to inspect machine vents on a daily basis to make sure perc isn't leaking.

"We are concerned about the health of people who may have been exposed to perc and will continue to respond to residents concerned about possible exposure to elevated levels of perc," a DOH spokesman told Crain's.