An Environment Canada investigation into 48 dry cleaners around B.C. alleges nearly half improperly handled a toxic chemical that has been linked to a number of health problems including liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage.
According to search warrant documents obtained by CBC News, federal enforcement officers inspected dozens of businesses in the summer of 2012 and found 21 dry cleaners with "at least one container of PERC, waste water or residue without a secondary containment."
One North Vancouver business — Lester's Dry Cleaning — faces two charges under the Environmental Protection Act related to its handling of PERC.
PERC, or perchloroethylene, is considered a probable carcinogen and was declared toxic in 1997 under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Also known as tetrachloroethylene, the solvent was also banned in California in 2007, and could soon face an ban in France.
PERC, which is rated as a hazardous chemical, can lead to eye irritation, memory loss and even kidney damage with direct exposure. The solvent is also the cause of widespread contamination associated with old dry cleaning businesses and has been cited in WorkSafeBC compensation claims by dry cleaning employees.
But it's also a very effective at removing grease, oil and stains from clothes. Since it doesn't negatively impact fibres, PERC cleans fabric without altering its shape. If used correctly, dry cleaners say the solvent is of no danger to customers or staff.
Manon Bombardier, director of Environment Canada's Enforcement Branch, said Canada's environmental regulations require businesses using the chemical to have secondary containment systems under dry cleaning machines and containers holding PERC and the waste produced through the dry cleaning process. Any tanks or drums holding PERC residue also have to be properly covered.
"Sometimes it's a lid that's missing on a container," she said. "In those cases we usually issue a warning letter and this serves as a precedent in our files. So the next time we go and find the same issue at that time there's no longer an argument of 'I didn't know'."
Bombardier says the B.C. inspections were part of a nationwide crackdown which saw 1640 dry cleaners investigated in 2011 and 2012. As a result, officers issued 471 warning letters and 85 environmental protection compliance orders.
Last November, Environment Canada obtained a search warrant for the offices of Prairie Distributors, on grounds the company allegedly sold PERC to owners or operators of dry cleaning facilities which did not have proper secondary containment systems — an offence under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
But the company denies the allegation and no charges have been filed in court. Environment Canada said the investigation is ongoing.
Last August, Toronto's Ashford Cleaners was convicted of improperly storing the chemical. The company was fined $60,000 under new regulations that see mandatory penalties range from $25,000 to $2 million.
In North Vancouver, the owner of Lesters Cleaners, Alhamid Dharshi, is slated to make a court appearance next month for allegedly failing to store PERC in a closed container and for dry cleaning without a proper secondary containment system.
More training needed
Frank Wagner heads the BC Fabricare Association, which speaks for the dry cleaning industry, and says that if used properly, barely any trace of the solvent remains in clothes that have been cleaned with PERC and that new technology has removed most of the risk of any of the chemical coming into contact with the environment.
But he says some newcomers to the industry don't want to pay for more expensive machinery or train themselves on environmental regulations.
"I don't have much sympathy for the ones which are not interested to comply nor interested to educate themselves, because at the end of the day, I find the consumer is the one who's going to pay the bill," he said. "They're hurting the industry."
Wagner believes the results of the Environment Canada investigation point to a need for better provincial training and accreditation for newcomers to the dry cleaning business. He says the proper use of PERC means there should be no "dry cleaning" smell associated with a business.
Aging businesses are biggest culprit
Meanwhile, the B.C. Ministry of Environment says old dry cleaning businesses account for roughly a quarter of the province's high-priority contaminated sites (see map below). The other three quarters are primarily former gas stations, bulk fuel storage sites and mines.
In some places, dry cleaners used to pour PERC-contaminated waste water right down the drain. The chemical eats through pipes and drain tiles into the groundwater. In rare cases it can also seep into surface bodies of water.
Neighbours of one old business in Victoria were recently alarmed to receive notice of potential PERC contamination in the ground around their homes.
"PERC is a big issue I suppose because wherever PERC is used historically, there seems to be contamination," says Colm Condon, the ministry's Manager of Risk Assessment.
"The general public is probably not very aware. If you live near a dry cleaning facility or you've been affected by one, obviously you are aware."
Concerns about the impacts of PERC led California to announce plans to ban the chemical from use by all dry cleaners by 2023. France is also moving to eliminate use of the solvent in the industry by 2022.
Environmentalist Manda Aufochs Gillespie takes her clothes to a chemical-free "wet-cleaner" because of concerns about PERC.
Aufochs Gillespie, who writes as The Green Mama, says Canada should follow suit.
"Am I not as good as a Californian? Does Canada not care about me as much as California cares about their people?" she says.
"I know enough about PERC to know that what ends up in the ground and what ends up in the water is actually just the tip of the iceberg."
Aufochs Gillespie takes her clothes to Helping Hands Cleaners on Cambie Street. Owner Johannes Angai says he made a deliberate choice not to clean with PERC.
"When California was banning it, Vancouver and Canada generally is not even talking about it," he says.
"I think it's a long overdue issue. Everybody understands how toxic PERC is, but we need action. We need somebody to actually lead and do something about it. And I'm doing my share by providing an alternative."
Wagner disagrees: "You're going to have to define the issue of chemical," he says.
"At home, you're doing the laundry, you add in chemical to the wash to actually clean clothes. So, the definition of chemical is very wide."
21 alleged to have improperly stored PERC
Court documents state that these 21 dry cleaning operations are alleged by federal inspectors to have been improperly storing PERC in the summer of 2012. The allegations are contained in a document submitted to support a search warrant on a dry cleaning chemical supplier. Charges have only been laid against one of the dry cleaning businesses: Lester's Cleaners, in North Vancouver.