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Product Replacement Program helps businesses tackle toxics

In the last year, Ecology’s Product Replacement Program helped more than 30 dry cleaners transition to safer cleaning methods, and we're working with more than 60 fire stations to collect and dispose of roughly 30,000 gallons of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Now, we’re determining which toxic chemical we should help replace next.

Safety first

We’re “staying home, staying healthy” to fight COVID-19 right now. While the pandemic has changed how we do our jobs, we’re still working hard for a stronger economy and a cleaner, healthier environment. Our Product Replacement Program is continuing to partner with local governments and businesses to remove or replace harmful chemicals.

The Product Replacement Program started in 2019, when the Legislature set aside funding for Ecology to “remove the worst of the worst chemicals from commerce.” We’ve tackled two chemicals so far, and are working (safely from home) on finding our next product.

Carcinogens in clean clothes

Our first target was perchloroethylene — known as “PERC.” PERC is a dry cleaning solvent that’s been around since the 1920s. We now know PERC is a carcinogen and has contaminated soil and groundwater near businesses that use it, but it was the industry standard for a long time. One dry cleaner we worked with had been using the same PERC machine for almost 40 years!

Many dry cleaners in Washington are small businesses. New machines that don’t use PERC can be prohibitively expensive, with price tags around $50,000. We’re using our funding to offer partial reimbursement for the installation of newer, cleaner machines — ones without PERC or other toxic chemicals.

Our partners in local government helped spread the word, and over 50 dry cleaners signed up for the program. More than half have already made the switch and received reimbursement. The investment of more than a half-million dollars is providing health benefits to dry cleaner owners, employees, and customers. Not using PERC also removes the possibility of PERC contamination, which can have a huge cost to clean up.

Forever chemicals in firefighting foam

Our second focus was per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — in firefighting foam, which has contaminated drinking water in at least four locations in Washington, and hundreds more nationwide.

PFAS are a class of chemicals that are extremely durable and slippery, and you can find them in many non-stick pans, water and stain repellants, and some firefighting foams. Unfortunately, many PFAS are toxic and don’t break down in the environment. When PFAS-containing firefighting foam is used, the foam can soak into the ground and contaminate drinking water.

A 2018 law in Washington banned most sales of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Many fire stations already use newer, less toxic foams, but still have older stockpiles of the PFAS-containing foam.

The Product Replacement Program is offering to safely collect and dispose of the older firefighting foam from any interested fire station. So far, we’ve communicated with fire stations across the state, and are planning on picking up around 30,000 gallons of foam. The estimated disposal cost is around $400,000.

Our program is taking the burden off local fire stations and ensuring the PFAS-containing foam doesn’t get into groundwater.

What comes next?

On top of all the good work already done, we still have resources left to spend in the current budget cycle, which ends July 2021. We’re talking with our local partners to find our next priority chemical, and our funding package specifically called out:

  • PCBs in caulk and other construction materials
  • PCBs in school light ballasts
  • Fire retardants in daycare nap mats and play pads for toddlers
  • Fire retardants in gymnasium foam
  • Mercury in older building thermostats

The Product Replacement Program has already been doing some great work reducing toxic chemicals in Washington’s environment, but there is always more we can do… and we need your help. If you own or operate a business that produces or stores any of these products or chemicals, please reach out to us at ProductReplacement@ecy.wa.gov. We will likely be targeting one or more of these products or chemicals next. Due to the COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions, we’re building a wait list of interested businesses with which we’ll be working soon. Get in the queue today to find out how much assistance you can get to help protect the environment.