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The End of "Dry-Clean Only"

Photo of Eli GichonEli's Airport Cleaners, a glass-front store in a nondescript Van Nuys, California, mini-mall, would be indistinguishable from other clothes-cleaning businesses -- if it weren't for the smell. There isn't any. "Of course it doesn't smell here," boasts owner Eli Gichon. "We don't have any toxic chemicals." Last year, Gichon weaned his decade-old business from perchloroethylene -- aka "perc" -- the stinky substance used by most dry cleaners to muscle grime out of delicate clothing. Guilty of much more than olfactory offenses, perc is an air and groundwater contaminant that has been linked to increased cancer rates among dry-cleaning workers.

Soon every cleaner in many Southern California counties will follow Gichon's lead, thanks to a recent South Coast Air Quality Management District decision to phase out perc by 2020. The December vote also banned the sale of perc cleaning equipment to new businesses -- the first such move in the United States.

The board's decision was based partly on a study conducted by Peter Sinsheimer, the director of Occidental College's Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center in Los Angeles. Under his guidance, eight dry cleaners, including Gichon, switched from perc to a process called wet cleaning, which mixes delicate clothes with special detergents that make it possible for them to be cleaned in water. Sinsheimer's work proved that the switch to new machinery was quicker and easier than dry-cleaning-machine manufacturers had claimed. "We were able to move from a toxic chemical to a nontoxic chemical in a weekend," he says.

To offset the cost of the new equipment -- at least $35,000 per store -- the air district set aside $2 million for grants. Gichon shows off his own wet-cleaning equipment with the pride of a new father. "A dry cleaner would die before letting water touch this coat," he says, chuckling as he tosses a customer's designer silk jacket into the wet-cleaning machine, a silver front-loader the size of a walk-in fridge. Next, a dryer eliminates 70 to 80 percent of the moisture. Then the garment is stretched over special tensioning equipment that restores the fabric to its original shape. After pressing and hanging, the final product looks as if it has been dry cleaned.

More than a hundred area cleaners have already stopped using perc in their shops, but not all of these have embraced wet cleaning, and plenty of skeptics remain. Industry groups claim that even with the grants, costs are prohibitive; that the air quality board's decision was based on faulty research; and that the alternative technology simply isn't up to snuff. "No matter what they say, you cannot wet-clean everything," says Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Cleaners Association.

Gichon disagrees. Since he made the switch, he hasn't logged a single customer complaint. "As long as you give them clean clothes, pressed correctly, customers don't care if you washed it in the river," he says. "I think people just don't realize how wonderful this is."
-- Kimberly Lisagor

Counter Culture Comes to the Great Smoky Mountains

Photo of a mothIt's a June night in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and swarms of moths -- irresistibly drawn to ultraviolet lights -- careen into panes of glass and white sheets, and then tumble into waiting traps. Over the course of a sleepless weekend, micromoth specialist Dave Wagner, along with thirty of America's moth and butterfly "top guns" plus dozens of volunteers, eventually will capture tens of thousands of specimens in what's been dubbed the "Lep Quest," a fanatical race to collect and catalog as many Lepidoptera species in the park as possible in forty-eight hours. "It's a paramilitary exercise," Wagner says without a trace of irony. "I find it the most intellectually exhausting activity I've ever engaged in. But it's also exhilarating."

By 3 p.m. the following day, Lep Quest scientists, processing up to ten moths a second, had identified 763 different species. The next day brought the total number to 865 -- 133 new to the park and 53 new to science altogether.

The Lep Quest is one of many "bio blitzes" organized by the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, a research effort that aims to identify every single life form in the park. Other blitzes, with names such as the Protista Pursuit and the Fern Foray, have counted bats, snails, and algae.

Park researchers estimate that some 100,000 species -- from microscopic protists and fungi to elk and black bear -- live within the 800 square miles of the nation's most-visited national park. Of those, only about 10 percent have been documented. "It's just astonishing that we perhaps know more about the moon than we know about the Smokies," says ATBI coordinator Jeanie Hilten.

Creating an unabridged catalogue of life here is just part of the reason for the ten- to fifteen-year project. The research also could affect the park's environmental future. A proposed land swap with the adjacent Cherokee reservation -- among the most controversial issues facing the park -- would turn over one of the Smokies' largest wetlands to the tribe as a site for a new school. Until scientists surveyed the parcel, says National Park Service biologist Keith Langdon, "we didn't recognize how ecologically significant this particular piece of property was." Some fifty species new to science were discovered on it, including several crustaceans. A final decision on the swap is still pending.

Up in Smokies high country, a place that, some worry, could be a last refuge for climate-sensitive species with no place higher to go to escape the effects of global warming, University of Tennessee entomologist Ian Stocks has found yet another never-before-seen wasp in one of his traps -- the first new species of its kind to be discovered in North America in more than a hundred years. "This is Indiana Jones stuff. Fortune and glory," says his wife, fellow entomologist Stephanie Stocks. Then she laughs. "But not so much fortune."
-- Marcus Wohlsen

Photo of a seahorse

When early taxonomists got hold of this whimsical creature, they gave it the genus Hippocampus, from the Greek words for "horse" and "sea monster." Since then, people have been loving sea horses to death by demanding them as aquarium pets and using them in traditional medicine. More than 20 million were taken annually from shallow seas in the early 1990s -- and the number's been going up each year. This November, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species placed every single sea horse species -- thirty-two in all -- on its list of animals whose trade must be closely regulated.

Trouble In Dog Town
Underneath a wide stretch of rye grass-covered flatland, on the east side of Lubbock, Texas, live thousands of black-tailed prairie dogs. There the animals have built themselves an underground city, digging miles of tunnels and scraping out hallways, dens, and even toilets. Endangered burrowing owls also moved into a few holes, and until last summer, life in Dog Town was pretty good.

Then Lubbock's city managers decided that the prairie dogs had to die. Lynda Watson, a fifty-year-old prairie dog trapper for farms and ranches, said that the animals were only doing what nature intended. "They eat, sleep, breed, and dig holes. That's about it."

Unfortunately, this colony decided to eat, sleep, breed, and dig holes in the same fields where the city sprays its nitrate-laden wastewater, the idea being that crops planted there will cheaply suck up the malodorous stuff. Then pollution levels spiked in the underlying Ogallala Aquifer. City council members blamed Dog Town, saying that wastewater was seeping into the aquifer via the animals' burrows. (Groundwater experts pointed out that the city sprays far more wastewater on the site than it can reasonably absorb.) But, undeterred, Lubbock announced a plan to poison the critters with pellets.

Into the fracas entered wildlife experts, who argued that killing the prairie dogs (illegal in some states) would result in the deaths of the endangered owls, a federal crime. We are pleased to report that, after months of wrangling, Lubbock has decided to spare all the animals, opting instead to pay Watson to remove them from certain areas.

"It's a wildlife miracle," she says of the city's about-face. Now Watson spends her days flushing prairie dogs out of their holes and catching them with her bare hands. On her own dime, she ships them to state parks and willing landowners' farms. Eleven even ended up at Fort Worth Zoo, where communications director Lyndsay Natz happily reports, "They're doing just great!"
-- Jill Davis

Photo of Lynda Watson

Photos: Dry-Clean Only, Chris Lee; Dog Town, Sean Meyers; Great Smoky Mountains, David Liebman; Seasick, Clay H. Wiseman;

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council