It hadn’t been a dry cleaners for over 40 years. The research was clear though – City Directory records from as early as 1930 through 1971 indicated that it had been there – and it was enough information to call it a ‘recognized environmental condition’. That is, the presence of a dry cleaners was enough to represent the likely presence of hazardous substances in, at, or on this property. This raised questions. How could we be sure that it was a dry cleaners? How could something that old still be considered an issue?

These are fair questions. But a dry cleaners is not likely to be misidentified in 40 years of historical records, and it’s certainly possible that contamination could be a concern. One recent blog called dry cleaners an “environmental scourge” – one that is often overlooked during property transactions.

Had this been a gas station I’d have been less concerned. Petroleum in the ground would have likely degraded after that amount of time. In fact, dry cleaning operations in the 1930s and 1940s probably used Stoddard Solvent, a petroleum-based chemical that would tend to naturally degrade over time.

By the late 1950s, however, most dry cleaning operations had made the switch to tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, or PCE. Originally developed in the 1930s, this chemical became the preeminent solvent in the dry cleaning industry, its use peaking in the 1980s. Naturally more resistant to degradation, this chemical was routinely treated with stabilizers and surfactants, creating a chemical that could travel quickly in the subsurface and remain there for a very long time.

Previous studies have noted that older operations used 5 to 10 times more solvent than modern operations, and were much more likely to release PCE. The State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners has estimated that about 75% of dry cleaners in the US caused environmental contamination. Today PCE is considered a carcinogen, and modern dry cleaning operations are subject air, hazardous waste, and wastewater regulations.

In short, historical dry cleaners can represent a significant risk for a property transaction. In my research I found insurance agencies and environmental lawyers alike that consider such properties to represent a real concern. At the end of the day, it’s worth knowing what you’re purchasing. The same questions are likely to come up again when the property is sold again down the road.