Preserving the Environment

This City Is Reducing Cancer Risk, One Laundromat at a Time

January 8, 2015
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This City Is Reducing Cancer Risk, One Laundromat at a Time
The EPA's Science Advisory Board has identified perchloroethylene as a probable human carcinogen. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The benefits of going green shouldn't be limited to affluent households.

The dilemma: The chemical that gives your clothing that “fresh-from-the-dry-cleaner” look is toxic. But even though it poses a risk to employees’ health and pollutes the neighborhood, many mom-and-pop operations don’t have the money to do anything about it.

About 75 percent of the nation’s 37,500 dry cleaners and laundromats rely on perchloroethylene — or “perc,” for short — a chemical that dissolves oil-based stains but is an air pollutant and suspected carcinogen.

One laundromat in Boston, owned by a family of Latin American immigrants, is demonstrating how communities can come together to fund “greener” business models that don’t depend on cancer-causing chemicals. It’s a way to benefit local patrons with safer practices and strengthen existing stores against waves of gentrification.

“The chemicals we used — we knew they were not healthy,” says Myra Vargas, a Guatemalan immigrant who purchased J&P Cleaners with her husband in 1996. When she was pregnant with her second child, she was so worried about the off-putting smell that stayed away from the store.

Breathing perc — even for a short time — can harm the nervous system, overwhelming a person with dizziness, fatigue, headaches and even fainting spells. (California is in the process of outlawing it, and other states are looking at voluntary incentives.) The colorless liquid evaporates when exposed to air, so cleaners working near it on a daily basis will inhale the chemical, putting them at risk of kidney and liver damage or cancer. The Vargas family didn’t like using perc, but without $80,000 to buy new machines, they were stuck with it. “We went 17 years using something that was dangerous for everybody,” she tells the Boston Globe.

As their neighborhood transformed — blocks of vacant storefronts in Jamaica Plain were revitalized into a hip area known for its arts and sustainable dining — the Vargas family sought a way to renew their decades-old business. The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JPNET) was there to help, aiming to eliminate cancer-causing chemicals at the source (i.e. dry cleaners, beauty salons, car mechanics and retail stores).

“Not enough effort, not enough research, not enough funds have been directed toward upstream efforts to prevent carcinogens from getting into the human environment in the first place,” says Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who partnered with the group. “How do we get to the point where we don’t pour this fire hydrant of carcinogenic chemicals into the environment?”

JPNET’s answer is to be “proactive” and “help existing businesses adopt healthier and safer processes, attract more customers and thrive financially,” Carlos Espinoza-Toro, JPNET’s lead organizer, tells Yes! Magazine. Rather than boycotting offenders, they ask the community to invest in scrubbing the neighborhood of toxic fumes. “In a gentrifying urban neighborhood, we want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households,” he adds.

In less than a year, with JPNET’s support, J&P Cleaners crowdsourced $18,000 from 160 donors and won a $15,000 state grant. The Vargas family now practices a technique called “wet cleaning,” which launders clothes in a computer-controlled wash of water, soaps and conditioners (that sometimes spins as slowly as six revolutions a minute) and then reshapes the garment under tension. Although the process produces some wastewater, the final product is spot-free clothing that doesn’t reek of chemicals.

Joined by local politicians, Vargas beamed at a ribbon-cutting ceremony late last year where she successfully opened the only wet cleaner in the neighborhood and one of a dozen in Massachusetts. “I’m thrilled with our wet cleaning,” she says. “The whites are whiter. We use less energy and water. I don’t have to pay to have toxic chemicals hauled away. There is no chemical smell in the store. What’s not to love?”

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