PERC-olating cancer fears

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It s the scare that keeps on scaring: The dry cleaning chemical PERC (perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene) has been a target of activists and the EPA for most of the past decade. In fact, the EPA first began to investigate the solvent s purported adverse health effects in the 1980s. Just last week, an updated health assessment released by the agency categorized PERC as a likely human carcinogen; now environmental activist groups are sounding the alarms with renewed force.

For instance, the always hyper-vigilant Environmental Working Group (EWG) has already issued a press release advising consumers to avoid dry cleaning businesses that use PERC, since the substance can remain on clothes and evaporate into the air at home, unnecessarily exposing the residents.

Unnecessarily exposing them to what, exactly? ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan wonders. The carcinogenicity of PERC is based mainly on animal experiments, she says, although some studies show a slight increase in cancer risk among long-term, highly exposed workers in the dry-cleaning industry. To warn consumers about breathing fumes from their dry-cleaning is not based on sound evidence.

The EPA based its decision on a 2010 recommendation by the National Research Council, an independent scientific organization that advises the federal government on science and policy issues. But even the agency is refuting claims made by EWG. As it states on its website, the EPA does not believe that wearing clothes dry cleaned with perc will result in exposures which pose a risk of concern.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross let out an exasperated sigh upon hearing the latest news. We ve been using PERC safely for decades, he says, and now all of a sudden, our EPA has decided to declare it a likely carcinogen? Show me the evidence that it s caused any harm to people who have their garments dry cleaned.