Neighbors Helped This Immigrant-Owned Dry Cleaner in Boston Go Nontoxic—and Stay in Business

Organizations that aim to reduce the use of toxic chemicals have long focused on shutting down offending businesses. But this story from Boston shows another way.
Vargas Family CERO

Photo courtesy of the authors.

Chuck Collins is a co-founder of JPNET and Polly Hoppin leads the environmental health program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.


In 1996, Guatemalan immigrant Myra Vargas and her Venezuelan husband Ernesto bought J&P Cleaners, a neighborhood dry cleaner in Boston. But something always smelled funny.

“The chemicals we used—we knew they were not healthy,” Myra said. She stayed away from the shop when she was pregnant with her second child.

The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.

Like most conventional dry cleaners in the U.S., J&P used a chemical called perchloroethylene, known in the industry as “PERC.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified PERC as a “likely human carcinogen.” Because it can be absorbed through the lungs and skin, it is primarily a threat to employees of dry cleaning businesses, who are subjected to it throughout the workday. But customers are also exposed when the chemicals seep out of clothing into the air in their homes.

California is phasing out the use of PERC in dry cleaning, requiring all businesses to discontinue its use by 2023. But regulations in most states, including Massachusetts, focus on limiting air emissions and promoting safer ways to dispose of chemicals, while continuing to allow the chemical’s use.

Thriving local businesses can also be safe

In J&P’s Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, toxic chemicals are used by many local businesses. These include dry cleaners, beauty and nail salons, automotive repair facilities, and most restaurants and retail establishments, where industrial cleaning substances are used. Many are owned and operated by recent immigrants and people of color.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Plain has higher rates of certain types of cancer than Massachusetts as a whole. When the Massachusetts Department of Health crunched the numbers in 2011, they found that Jamaica Plain’s rate of brain cancer in men was more than 275 percent higher than the state’s; when the department averaged all forms of cancer together, the rate among males was 20 percent higher, while the rate for women was 18 percent higher.

Of course, the causes of cancer are multiple, and scientists debate the percentages of the cancer burden that are attributable to various causes. But even taking the low estimates of cancer caused directly by environmental exposure, pollutants are responsible for tens of thousands of cases of cancer in the United States each year. Particularly for certain kinds of cancers, it is clear that environmental pollutants play an important role—one that people can do something about.

Historically, most attempts to take action on this issue have focused on closing down offending businesses or cleaning up messes created in the past. But no neighborhood with high unemployment wants to push out jobs or raise costs on small, locally owned businesses. The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JPNET), a local community group, has approached the issue differently—in part because its members consider themselves part of the “new economy,” an effort to build a resilient economic system that supports local, independent business while promoting sustainability.

“We want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”

“We want to be proactive and help existing businesses adopt healthier and safer processes, attract more customers, and thrive financially,” said Carlos Espinoza-Toro, lead organizer of JPNET. “In a gentrifying urban neighborhood, we want to ensure that the benefits of ‘going green’ are not limited to affluent households.”

JPNET teamed up with researchers at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to create the Cancer-Free Economy Project, a neighborhood-based group designed to help local business avoid toxic substances. They mapped local cancer patterns, identified chemicals likely to be used in the neighborhood, and picked dry cleaners, beauty salons, and auto businesses as places where they could make the greatest difference.

JPNET organized a number of community forums to educate the public about local cancer rates, chemical exposures, and actions residents could take. One forum focused on helping local artists identify the “hidden hazards of the art studio,” and considered how artists could reduce their exposure to toxic substances.

“A lot of us have put on pink shirts and marched to raise money for cancer treatment,” said Mary Wallace, a local realtor and member of JPNET. “So it is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”

Can our local economy be free of carcinogens?

Groups that see themselves as part of a “new economy movement” often focus on building community resilience to face the economic and ecological shock waves of the future. At JPNET, this has meant strengthening the local food and energy systems; creating an “enterprise hub” to support businesses that share its worldview; building a time exchange network; cultivating emergency preparedness, and other projects.

After learning about cancer rates in Jamaica Plain, JPNET set out to explore how a transition to a “new economy” could also be cancer free—or at least involve significantly lower use of toxics.

“It is refreshing to focus on some of the root causes of cancer, rather than treating an expensive epidemic.”

That goes against the grain of the mainstream economy, where the chemical industry has seen rapid growth over the last 70 years. But this growth has increased everyone’s exposure to hazardous chemicals, whether through manufacturing, selling, or consuming mass goods, and it especially affects people of color, who often live in historically lower-income neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain.

“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread,” the President’s Panel on Cancer reported in 2010.

The members of JPNET felt that reducing the number of toxic chemicals in their environment should be an important part of the transition to a new economy. The evolving local economy doesn’t have to use materials that make everyone sick.

One laundry goes green

Community organizer Espinoza-Toro approached all the existing dry cleaners about the possibility of converting away from PERC. Several of the owners were nearing retirement and uninterested in converting. Then he met Ernesto and Myra Vargas at a green cleaning demonstration at a suburban cleaner. The Vargas family owned a dry cleaner in the adjacent neighborhood of Roslindale and wanted to expand to Jamaica Plain.

JPNET worked with J&P Cleaners to explore what it would take to replace the hazardous solvent PERC with a green alternative to dry cleaning called “wet cleaning.” Professional wet cleaning uses water and nontoxic detergents in computer-controlled machines, and is a proven alternative to the dry cleaning process.

Some dry cleaners claim to be “green” because they have transitioned away from PERC, but most of these still use harmful chemicals. A comprehensive “alternatives assessment” by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute concluded that professional wet cleaning saves energy and water, and is the safest alternative for human health.

But the cost of conversion is about $80,000, mostly for new equipment purchases—a big expense for a small business. The Vargases also expressed concern about whether their customers even wanted a “green dry cleaner.”

JPNET worked to organize local government, customers, hospitals, and investors not only to help J&P make the conversion but also to become the first professional wet cleaner in Boston. The group secured a $15,000 grant from the state and organized a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $18,000 from neighborhood residents. This also got a lot of local publicity for J&P and attracted new customers.

On September 11, J&P Cleaners opened its new Jamaica Plain location, which uses the wet cleaning process. JPNET has subsequently reached out to a local hospital, a hotel, several nursing homes, and other businesses about steering their dry cleaning to J&P Cleaners.

Along with eight other professional wet cleaners in Massachusetts, J&P is demonstrating that shifting away from reliance on hazardous chemicals is good for customers, workers, and neighbors—and good for business too.

“I’m thrilled with our wet cleaning,” said Myra Vargas at their grand opening. “The whites are whiter. We use less energy and water. I don’t pay to have toxic chemicals hauled away. There is no chemical smell in the store. What is not to love?”


Polly Hoppin co-leads the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production’s work to build a multi-organization national network to shift the U.S. economy away from reliance on chemicals that contribute to cancer.

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