This article appears in the Nov. 2 issue of the Magazine.
When Myra Vargas and her husband took over a dry-cleaning business in Jamaica Plain last spring, they had to make a tough decision: whether to use a common chemical called perchloroethylene, known as perc, or institute a costly change. Vargas knew that perc, which they’d been using to clean clothes at their Roslindale shop for nearly two decades, was dangerous. Years earlier, she’d been warned to stay away from it while pregnant. But she’d recently learned that perc probably causes cancer in dry-cleaning workers. “We went seventeen years using something that was dangerous for everybody,” she says.
Extra encouragement to make the change to a safe system known as wet cleaning came from a group called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, but it wouldn’t be easy. The couple would need to buy all new machinery and pay to get rid of their old, perc-based equipment. And making the switch would cost more than $100,000, a daunting hurdle. Plus, they’d heard conflicting stories about whether wet cleaning worked as well. But then the project helped them get a $15,000 state grant and launch a Kickstarter campaign that raised another $18,000. On September 11, J&P Dry Cleaners celebrated its grand opening as the neighborhood’s only wet cleaner and one of only about a dozen in the state.
The shop’s opening was the first success in an ambitious effort to rid Jamaica Plain businesses of chemicals likely or suspected to cause cancer. Across the nation, Main Street businesses routinely use such chemicals: at beauty and nail salons, hair straighteners and polishes that may release formaldehyde, for instance; at auto shops, brake cleaners that can include perc and solvents with trichloroethylene. By persuading companies to switch to safer alternatives, the JP project aims to create locally what its leaders are calling “a cancer-free economy.”
Although nationally cancer rates are declining slightly, an estimated 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with the disease this year and more than half a million will die of it. But most of us don’t need stats to tell us there’s a lot of cancer around — everyone seems to know someone. As I write this, I’m thinking of a beloved uncle fighting leukemia in a hospital bed. And of my mom and a dozen other friends and relatives who survived cancer — or didn’t. It’s a terrible disease, and I am rooting for a cure. Yet that quest often overshadows attempts to stop the things that cause it.
“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 at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, which is partnering on the Jamaica Plain project. “How do we get to the point where we don’t pour this fire hydrant of carcinogenic chemicals into the environment?”
To be sure, exposure to chemicals doesn’t cause all (or even most) cancers. The American Cancer Society attributes 30 percent of US cancers to cigarette smoking and 35 percent to poor diet, inactivity, and obesity. Other factors, such as genetics and infections, also contribute. But any given cancer case is now understood to have more than one cause, Clapp argues, so the idea of dishing out blame to one factor is flawed.
The JP project, which received a $20,000 grant from UMass Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute last year and was recently awarded another, is gearing up to approach other neighborhood businesses like auto shops and beauty salons. And it’s trying to persuade local hospitals, hotels, and senior living facilities to use Vargas’s shop for dry cleaning. In addition to reducing carcinogens, the project aims to support minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses in JP’s gentrifying economy — communities all too often left out of environmental and health discussions.
The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production is taking an even wider-angle look at creating cancer-free economies. In partnership with two national groups, it secured foundation support — around $1 million for each of the next three years — to build a network of organizations that will strategize how best to wean the national economy off cancer-causing chemicals, then fund a series of initiatives to help do just that.
Whether the JP project or even the national one can credibly reduce our economic dependence on carcinogens remains to be seen. But we need more of this kind of bold, creative thinking. And if we want businesses, especially small ones, to change their ways, they are going to need help. Fortunately, Massachusetts has other like-minded initiatives, including Boston’s Green & Clean small-business certification program and the Toxics Use Reduction Institute’s statewide assistance program.
Without the JP project’s help, Vargas says she would never have given up perc. But she’s thrilled with the decision: There’s no chemical smell in the shop, wash loads take half the time and less energy, and the whites come out whiter. Her utility bills have dropped, and there are no more fees for disposing of perc. “At the end, it’s worth it, because now we see the results,” she says. “People like it. It’s better.”
Vargas is planning to send other neighborhood business owners to the group and is helping spread its message of a carcinogen-free Jamaica Plain. “It’s a big problem and a hard process . . . for them to convince people,” she says. “But I’m hoping they do it.”
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