Suffolk Closeup: Taken to the cleaners by chemicals


The Suffolk County Legislature is slated to vote soon, possibly as early as next week, on a bill to increase the public’s awareness of chemicals used by dry cleaning establishments.

The measure has been introduced by Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), the author of many bills involving the environment and public health. It was inspired by Beth Fiteni, an environmental consultant working with the “Prevention is the Cure Campaign” of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition.

The bill focuses on two issues.

One is to make Suffolk residents aware that most dry cleaners here, like elsewhere, use a chemical called perchloroethylene — dubbed “perc” by the dry cleaning industry — which is “hazardous,” states the bill. Indeed, perc is “considered to be a probable human carcinogen by the federal government,” says the measure. “Perc contaminates drinking water in our aquifer and is responsible for a number of contaminated waste locations on Long Island and throughout the nation.”

Perc is so hazardous that California plans to ban its use in dry cleaning in 2023.

The second focus is to educate Suffolk residents on what some dry cleaners here are using as a substitute for perc. Says the bill: “In response to the problems associated with perc use, the dry cleaning industry has developed alternative cleaning methods using different types of chemicals. These alternative solvents to perc vary in their environmental impacts, as well as their safety for consumers and dry cleaning employees.”

Under the measure, dry cleaners in Suffolk would be required to “disclose to consumers the type of process and solvents they utilize.”

Ms. Fiteni first began looking into perc and the alternative dry cleaning methods when she was program director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College. She received calls, she recounted, from people saying “‘my dry cleaner says what it is using is green,’and wanting to know ‘what does that mean?’”

With the assistance of Amy Juchatz, environmental toxicologist at the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and a Shelter Island resident, she conducted research.

They found that of the 800 dry cleaners on Long Island, only 32 were perc-free.

Ms. Fiteni looked into the alternative methods being used and reviewed studies that determined the safest and, in fact, the “greenest of all the options” is what’s termed “wet cleaning.” Here, clothing is washed, relates Ms. Fiteni, in a “commercial grade detergent in a specialized machine.” Another method, second among alternatives, is the use of liquid carbon dioxide under pressure, also in a “specialized machine.” Yet another alternative, Rynex, “can be an eye and skin irritant.” And a method called the hydrocarbon process involves a “set of petrochemical-based solvents” that not only can cause eye and skin irritation, but headaches and dizziness as well.

There are only two dry cleaners on the East End not using perc on the list available from Ms. Fiteni’s company, Green Inside and Out Consulting. Both use “wet cleaning.” They are Sweetwater’s French Style Dry Cleaners in Wainscott and Good Ground Dry Cleaners in Hampton Bays.

With Karen Miller, executive director of the Prevention is the Cure Campaign — and a breast cancer survivor — Ms. Fiteni brought her work to Legislator Hahn. Ms. Hahn and her office then conducted what her aide, Seth Squicciarino, describes as more than a year of research and collaboration with experts knowledgeable on best environmental practices in the dry cleaning industry, including Beth Fiteni. Then Ms. Hahn, chair of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee, composed and introduced the bill.

Ms. Fiteni, in her testimony on the measure at a legislative meeting last month, said “California has really set the precedent and shown leadership in addressing this issue and creating awareness, and I very much hope Suffolk County will be the East Coast leader on this.” She added that “it is encouraging that there are so many alternatives, and I hope that Long Islanders make the effort to become informed and seek them.”

Also testifying was a spokeswoman for the National Cleaners Association who said that modern dry cleaning machinery does not allow perc to be released, so the chemical does not pose a danger to public health or the environment.

Ms. Fiteni, of Huntington, with a master’s degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, said she was surprised that so few dry cleaners on Long Island are perc-free, and she asks people to contact her through the Green Inside and Out Consulting website at
“If your dry cleaner is green and not on the list, please let us know,” Ms. Fiteni said.