Hazardous materials have become an everyday fact of life for first responders. Technology has created new hazards to challenge us. We cannot hide from them, nor can we find a place that is safe from them.

Firefighters arriving at a haz-mat scene must carefully weigh their knowledge against the potential hazards. If nothing is known about the materials involved, the only actions that should be taken are to request assistance, secure the scene, and make proper notifications. When a fire develops into a hazardous-materials incident, responders must use a go-slow or defensive approach and take steps to minimize risk even if none is apparent.

One widely used and often overlooked threat is the neighborhood dry cleaner. Presently, more than 35,000 dry cleaners throughout the United States are using approximately 300 million pounds of the hazardous substance perchloroethylene (PERC) every year. Some of these establishments are small “mom and pop” stores located in residential neighborhoods at street-level shops and sometimes are located right below apartments.

According to New York City permit records, 80 percent of the 2,000 dry cleaning establishments in the city are in densely populated areas. New York City health officials estimate that about 99,000 people may be exposed to indoor PERC vapors, 92 percent of whom live or work in the same building as a dry cleaner.

Dry cleaners are far from dry in the normal sense of the word. Dry cleaning is a scientific method of removing dirt from fabrics without washing them in soap and water. It turns out that the majority of the dry cleaners use the toxic, irritating, synthetic-chlorinated hydrocarbon liquid and probable cancer-causing chemical PERC to remove that hard-to-clean stain (see sidebar on page 74). Unlike water, this solvent does not saturate clothing fibers, causing them to expand and release the dirt. It removes dirt by dissolving the oil or substance holding the dirt.

According to SARA Title III (1991) data, total reported releases of PERC from all industries in the United States amounted to 16 million pounds–making PERC releases from dry cleaners close to 13 times greater than all SARA-reported releases from American industries. PERC is a toxic substance under the Federal Clean Air Act; when it is used up, it`s considered a hazardous waste. Under the Right-to-Know laws, releases of one pound or more (RQ–Reportable Quantity) must be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). PERC (or tetrachloroethene) has been the dry cleaning industry`s chemical of choice since the 1950s, having replaced the combustible petroleum solvent. However, some facilities are returning to the use of combustible napthalene and Stoddard solvents because of health and environmental concerns (see Fire Prevention Bureau, March 1991, page 53).


Generally, firefighters can respond to two types of dry cleaning establishments–a “plant” or a “drop-store.” The actual process of dry cleaning is done at the plant. Large washing machine(s) containing PERC are used to remove stains and soil from garments on the premises. Drop-store establishments do not perform the wet process of dry cleaning. Typically, the customer drops off the garments, and a local dry cleaning plant picks up, dry cleans, and then drops off the finished garments to the drop-store. Drop-stores do not have problems associated with spills, leaks, or escaping and accumulating PERC vapors.

Distinguishing Between Plants and Drop Establishments

Plants may be identified by the following characteristics. A sign stating “Dry cleaning done on premises” may be posted in storefront windows. Ducting and venting systems often are at the side or rear of the building. The facade may be abnormally high. Plastic/metal drums may be at the rear of the premises. On the interior, there may be a strong and distinctive ether-like odor, sounds of machines washing, and the presence of 35- to 55-gallon metal/plastic containers of PERC. The drums will have DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) Label Identification Class 9, Miscellaneous and/or ORM-A. These drums usually are located near the machines or may be outside in the rear of the premises. Once used up, the spent PERC, waste sludge, and filters are placed into 35- to 55-gallon drums for off-site hazardous waste removal. The spent PERC drums could be located anywhere inside or outside the store. These drums should be identified with a red-bordered yellow label that reads “HAZARDOUS WASTE.”

An on-site inspection is the only way to determine the hazards presented by the dry cleaning establishments within your jurisdiction..


According to Occupational Environmental & Health (OEH) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services epidemiological studies, PERC has been found to cause a wide array of serious chronic health effects, including myriad reproductive disorders. Strong evidence has shown that it increases the risks of several types of cancers, including those of the esophagus, kidney, liver, bladder, lung, cervix, and pancreas, as well as leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has upgraded PERC from a possible to a probable carcinogen. PERC, an organochlorine compound, tends to be persistent, stable, and easily bioaccumulative (stored) in the body fat and then is slowly released into the bloodstream.

Inhalation of vapors is the most common route of exposure to PERC. Its distinct sweet ether-like odor is easily detectable to as low as five parts per million in air (ppm). Be aware that the odor becomes inconspicuous and therefore is an unreliable warning signal. After a short period of time, the sense of smell becomes impregnated, losing that distinctive ether odor, and individuals can be lured into further exposure that will quickly develop into a narcotic or mental incapacitation. Unless you quickly exit to the fresh air, you will lose consciousness within a short time. Symptoms of overexposure to PERC are parallel to those of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Exposure to CO at 3,200 ppm in air for 10 minutes will cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Exposure to PERC at 600 ppm in air for 10 minutes will produce the same effects. Both PERC and CO present symptoms that can be mistaken for substance abuse. Prolonged exposure from either will cause mental incapacitation and confusion, vertigo, and incoherence, which can lead to decision making that can be fatal.

Ingestion and absorption of PERC must also be guarded against. In July 1995, two contractor employees at a plant in Ontario, Canada, were killed when they were overcome by perchloroethylene fumes used to remove PCBs from an electrical transformer. The incident took place inside a large tank-type containment trailer that had a small opening at the top. Three other workers, an ambulance attendant, and a firefighter were injured in the same incident.


Bunker gear is not impervious to PERC or its vapors. The 1996 Emergency Response Guide Book indicates that structural firefighting protective clothing (bunker gear) in conjunction with a positive-pressure SCBA will provide only limited protection. The proper and best protection is chemical protective clothing with positive-pressure SCBA.

PERC`s major hazard is toxicity, not fire or explosion. Normal everyday processing operations can develop into emergencies involving fugitive vapor emissions from piping and machines or even spillages of containers containing PERC. The workers/owners often clean up minor leaks and spills that often warrant no emergency response. However, many workers/owners may be unaware of the hidden hazards, and an improper cleanup or accumulation of vapors can turn into an emergency. In cold weather when doors and windows are more likely to be closed and the use of fans are curtailed, the vapors (5.72) have the tendency to stay inside and to remain low.

When responding to significant spills or leaks in dry cleaners, you must wear respiratory protection, evacuate the immediate area, and shut off all ignition sources. Ventilate the area immediately surrounding the spill or leak. Absorbents (sand, soil, sawdust, or other commercially available sorbents) will confine the spill/leak and slow down the evaporation of vapor. Rags or water spray or fog may be used if absorbents are not available. Note: Be careful when using water. Limited amounts will react to PERC; if sufficient water volume is present, no harmful reactions should occur. Make sure water runoff doesn`t enter any sewers or drains.


The incidence of PERC spills and leaks is greater than that of fires involving it. If liquid product is involved in fire, use dry chemical, CO, or water spray. Larger fires may require more of those extinguishing media or alcohol-resistant foam. However, should a fire occur, a major concern would be the hundreds or thousands of hanging combustibles, covered with plastic. Many of these establishments have very large, open ceilings, ranging 15 feet or more, with many rack and rails of conveyor belts. The exterior of these establishments, as indicated earlier, may have a high front facade indicating the large, open, high ceiling inside.


The primary concern is personnel. Should any personnel become contaminated, remove and isolate them, observing proper decontamination protocols. It is essential to move all victims to fresh air and administer oxygen. If skin contact is made with the substance, immediately flush the area with water for at least 20 minutes. Haz-mat teams must respond to further confine/contain the substance and exercise decon control of personnel/equipment with EMS assistance. The proper authority or professional salvage or cleanup company must be requested for final cleanup and removal.

Maintain an aggressive but cautious interior attack with the hoseline, pushing fire and noxious smoke toward any vented or natural openings. While the engine company cools and confines the fire, the truck company should provide adequate ventilation from the sides and above. A working fire in these establishments will quickly move throughout the entire area. Be aware that any container(s) of PERC–even those that are vented–can cause a catastrophic explosion triggered by PERC`s high evaporation rate and a rapid rise in internal temperature and pressure. Should an explosion occur, toxic product and shrapnel will be spewed in all directions.

Since it is a toxic liquid, PERC poses a serious problem if it is involved in fire. It will decompose into chlorine, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride, giving off poisonous and corrosive gases. Approach such a fire from upwind to avoid the hazardous smoke vapors and decomposition products. If fire is near any containers (drums or washing machines, for example), use water spray to keep any fire-exposed containers cool. Many references state that water is incompatible with PERC and may even be reactive, forming hydrochloric and trichloroacetic acids. However, flooding with a large volume of water should overwhelm these reactions.

Hazards that may hinder the progress of fire personnel in a fire involving a dry cleaning establishment are hot irons, steam presses and guns, hanging wires and electrical cords, electrical wall/ceiling/floor fans, racks of conveyor belts, sewing machines, and an array of chemical compounds or other concoctions used to remove spots from soiled garments. Many of these compounds–which may include ammonia, protein formulas, powdered enzymes, alcohol, tannin formulas, acids, bases, rusticators, oils, bleach, amyl acetate, volatile dry solvent, and GumoutTM choke cleaner–may be in jars, bottles, sprayers, and open containers that may be haphazardly placed on counters, tables, shelves, or ironing boards.


PERC is one of more than 50,000 chemicals covered by the Hazard Communication Standard, Right-to-Know Laws. Many dry-cleaning owner/operators operate safely. All three fire codes have provisions dealing with dry cleaning establishments. These include special ventilation requirements for facilities using PERC and many more extensive requirements for those using combustible solvents. Some city building and fire codes, such as those in New York City, permit dry cleaners to operate under residential apartments. Some operators/owners are unaware of the many hazards associated with PERC. Since many are small and poorly capitalized, they are ill-equipped (antiquated machines) to institute adequate safety measures.

* * *

Neighborhood dry cleaning establishments should be viewed as potential haz-mat incidents when firefighters are summoned to emergencies at these sites. They should not be looked on as “routine” calls. During these times when we are continuoually challenged by hazardous substances, we must cultivate the attitude, skills, and knowledge (ASK) that will best ensure our chances for survival when responding to an emergency incident. n


“Clean clothes may be bad for your health,” Citizens Clearinghouse; 13:4, Fall 1994.

“Cleaned Out,” Mary Beth Pfeiffer, Village Voice, Jan. 1992.

Currance, Phillip L. and Alvin C. Bronstein. Emergency Care for Hazardous Materials Exposure, Guideline #30, 1988; 143.

“Dry Cleaning–A Wet Process,” Thomas K. Wray, HazMat World, May 1990.

“Dry Cleaning: Is Regulation Necessary?” Rachel`s Environment & Health, #431, Mar. 2, 1995.

Fire, Frank L. 1986. The Common Sense Approach to Hazardous Materials, Chapter 12: “Plastics,” Fire Engineering.

Fire, Frank L. “Chemical Data Notebook: Series #79, Tetrachloroethyl-ene,” Fire Engineering, Dec. 1992, 64.

Green Peace Pollution Report: “Dressed to Kill,” Apr. 1994.

Handbook of Chemical Hazard Analysis Procedures, “Toxicity Hazard of Chemical Substances,” U. S. Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Tetra-chloroethylene,” New Jersey Department of Health, Right-to-Know Program, 1994.

National Fire Protection Handbook, 15th Edition, 1981. National Fire Protection Associa-tion (NFPA).

1996 North American Emergency Response Guide Book, I.D. #1897 Guide #160, U. S. Department of Transportation, Transport Canada and Secretariat of Transport Communication.

1994 PERC Emission Fact Sheet, Neighbor-hood Cleaners Association (NCA).

Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services, Publication #94-116 National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), 300, June 1994.

Recommended Standard for Occupational Exposure to Tetrachloroethylene. National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), U. S. Department of Health, 1979.

Reproductive Hazards Related to Perchloro-ethylene. Occupational & Environmental Health, Sept. 1988.

“Tetrachloroethane (Perchloroethane -PERC) Know the Facts,” New York City Department of Health, Apr. 1994.

Toxicological Profile for Tetrachloroethylene, U. S. Department of Health & Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, April 1993.

Click here to enlarge image

A typical dry cleaning establishment with residences above. “Same Day Cleaning” sign in the window indicates PERC and washing machines are on the premises. (Photo by author.)


PERC, used in 90 percent of all commercial dry cleaners in the United States and Canada, is a toxic, irritating, synthetic-chlorinated organic, nonflammable, stable, and colorless solvent liquid with an ethereal odor similar to that of chloroform. In addition to being used as a solvent in the dry cleaning and textile industries, PERC is used as a metal-decreasing agent, an insulating fluid, and a cooling gas in electrical transformers, solvents, pesticides, and fumigant intermediates. It can also be found in some consumer products such as auto brake cleaners, suede protectors, water repellants, silicone and belt lubricants, specialized aerosol cleaners, ignition wire driers, fabric finishes, spot removers, adhesives, and wood cleaners.

Since it is nonflammable, PERC has no flash point, ignition temperature, or flammable/explosive range. However, it decomposes at high temperatures into toxic fumes of hydrogen chloride (HCL)–a corrosive, irritant gas; phosgene (COCL2)–a deadly, poisonous gas; vinyl chloride (CH2=CHCL)–a flammable gas; carbon tetrachloride (CCL4)–a poison liquid; and trichloroacetic acid (TCA)–a potent poisonous herbicide. Each is considered a more serious hazard than PERC itself. As a member of the chlorinated ethylene compounds, PERC is also known as an “organochlorine,” which has characteristics similar to DDT, PCBs, and dioxins, all of which are known to be carcinogens.

PERC`s specific gravity is 1.63 (water = 1), making it heavier than water. It is miscible with alcohol, ether, chloroform, oils, and benzene but is practically insoluble in water. Although it is considered nonreactive to water, it will react and slowly decompose water to form hydrochloric acid and trichloroacetic acid. Its vapor density is 5.72 (air = 1), making it heavier than air, seeking its vapors at lower areas. Heavy vapors in the presence of liquid oxygen, nitric acid, potassium, sodium hydroxide, and metals such as magnesium, potassium, and other oxidizers will react violently–maybe with explosive force. Its evaporation rate is 2.8, as compared with butyl acetate (= 1). Substances with an evaporation rate that is greater than one vaporize at a more rapid rate. For example, PERC will evaporate 2.8 times faster than butyl acetate and 312 times faster than water. The evaporation rate can be useful in evaluating a material`s health and fire hazards.

Among the most common synonyms for PERC are tetrachloroethylene; ethylene tetrachloride; tetrachloroethene; 1,1,2,2, tetrachloroethene; carbon bichloride; carbon dichloride; and perchloroethylene. Common trade names include PERK, PERC, TCE, Dilatin, Feon 1110, Antisol, Dee-solv, Didakene, Dow-per, Perclene, and Tetlin. n

DAN PONTECORVO, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant in the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He is a state-certified haz-mat instructor and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has a master`s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a bachelor`s degree in mechanical engineering from Pratt Institute.

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