Toxic chemicals found at former Richmond dry cleaning business

The discovery of high levels of toxic chemicals found at a former dry cleaning site in Richmond, has prompted health officials to take immediate action, with plans Friday to go door-to-door in the neighborhood installing monitors and even considering evacuations of nearby homes if airborne toxins rise above safety levels.

The state says the building in Richmond at 2022 Barrett Avenue has a history of housing dry-cleaning businesses from 1960 through 2001. 

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control sent a letter this week to Contra Costa County and city health officials, saying recent tests showed an alarming number of toxic chemicals at the site.

"The concentration and the types of chemicals that they've found are things we don't want people exposed to for long terms or in high concentrations," said Dr. Lisa Rodelo, deputy health officer for the Contra Costa County Health Department.

Neighbors who live around the site were surprised and worried.

"It's very concerning. Especially because we live close to a refinery already. We're surrounded by chemicals and then now having that in the neighborhood. That's very concerning," said Francisco Ramirez, a neighbor who says he's lived next to the site for more than 20 years.

The testing was done under a new program to identify dry cleaning sites and assess whether they pose a risk to public health. 

The DTSC identified the site as one of 112 potential dry-cleaning danger spots in California that needed to be tested.

The DTSC installed soil sample monitors in October, and in their notification report this week their data showed dangerous levels of toxic materials in soil gas samples. Dr. Rodelo says there is great concern that those levels could indicate high indoor air concentrations within the building and  

TCE or trichlorethylene samples were at 793,000 micrograms per cubic meter, indicating a "predicted ambient indoor air concentration that could reach 23,790 micrograms per cubic meter." The report says safe levels are 24 micrograms per cubic meter.

TCE is a particular danger to pregnant women and can cause cancer, birth defects, and decreased immune system response.

Similarly high levels of PCE or tetrachyloroethylene, benzene, and vinyl chloride were also found.

"We need to figure out how to address the health needs the immediate needs of the people that are located in those areas," said Rodelo.

"It's a bit odd knowing it to be here," Yelsi Trujillo, a resident who lives in a home next to the building, said. "But I know this area of Richmond hasn't been the best."

The chemicals are particularly dangerous for pregnant women and children.

"County health and state DTSA will be out here trying to get access to neighboring homes, installing do additional testing," said John Gioia, Contra Costa County Supervisor for District 1. 

Gioia talked with residents and says if additional testing show high levels in nearby homes, people may need to be evacuated. He says there is great urgency to ensure public safety. 

The problem, he says, is if some people need to be relocated.

"This new state program to discover cancer-causing chemicals is a good one," Gioia said. "But if the health department needs to take action to move people, we need funding and resources from the state to do that."

Officials say one business called Courteous Cleaners operated from 1982 to 1999 and was listed in hazardous waste manifests as having released some halogenated solvents.

PCE or tetrachloroethylene concentrations in the soil samples showed a maximum ground sample measuring 10,700,000 micrograms per cubic meter. That could indicate air concentrations up to 321,000 micrograms per cubic meter. The safety level for commercial sites is 2 micrograms per cubic meter.

PCE can cause bladder, liver, and kidney cancer, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Exposure can also cause problems with the kidneys, liver, nervous system, and reproductive development.

The soil samples found benzene levels at a maximum concentration of 527 micrograms per cubic meter, indicating possible indoor air concentrations of 15.81 micrograms per cubic meter. The safe level is 0.42 micrograms per cubic meter.

The DTSC records indicate the initial case for the Richmond site was opened in the spring of 2022. When asked why the testing took so long to implement, the DTSC responded that they are still reviewing the records. 

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at or call her at 510-326-5529. Or follow her on X/Twitter @JanaKTVU.