Clean Clothes, Wet Power
By Jack Feuer, Illustrations by James Steinberg
Published Oct 1, 2010 8:00 AM
You might think a dry cleaner is the last place to start a revolution. But not so, particularly not when it comes to those garments labeled "dry clean only," which the vast majority of the more than 30,000 dry cleaners in the U.S. clean with a toxic chemical named perchloroethylene, or PCE.
Three-quarters of all dry cleaners inspected have been found to be contaminated with PCE, which has been associated with a long list of bad things, including cancer, respiratory disease and liver and kidney damage.
And if the revolution succeeds, you'll want to thank Peter Sinsheimer M.A. '94, Ph.D. '09.
Sinsheimer, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable Technology & Policy Program (STPP), began his quest in 1995 as a doctoral student in UCLA's Department of Urban Planning. He was looking for a dissertation topic that focused on the science of evaluating safer substitutes for hazardous products and also how to make policy that promotes viable alternatives. The department was starting a project to evaluate the first dry cleaner in California to use professional wet cleaning, a water-based alternative to dry cleaning that offers lower operating costs and a significant amount of energy savings. In the years that followed, Sinsheimer, who moved to Occidental College to direct its Pollution Prevention Center, was able to demonstrate that "a risk prevention [as opposed to risk management] paradigm was a practical policy approach for phasing out hazardous substances and phasing in green technologies."
In 2000, he returned to UCLA to run STPP, a partnership between the School of Law and the School of Public Health. With Law Professor Timothy Malloy and John Froines, professor of toxicology, Sinsheimer now has his sights set on other environmental miscreants such as lead and conventional chemical pesticides.
And the revolution is clearly spreading. This summer, London Cleaners became the first in Westwood Village to install wet cleaning. California recently enacted the Safer Consumer Products Act, which requires the development of safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals and provides the authority to phase out such products when safer substitutes are available. Sinsheimer's "environmental garment care demonstration project" has been duplicated in several other states.
"We are aware that our mission is challenging," he says, "but we are confident that we will see the paradigm shift over time."