You can always tell a garment that has come back from the dry cleaners. There’s that faint smell that seems to linger on the item, and in the closet, until that shirt or jacket gets worn again. The smell comes from the solvent used in the dry cleaning process, and chances are it’s not particularly good for you or the environment.
Perchloroethylene (PERC) is the most common chemical fluid used in dry cleaning. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 28,000 U.S. dry cleaners use perc, which is the only airborne toxin emitted from the dry cleaning process. Scientists with the EPA say that acute exposure to perc can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headache as well as a loss of coordination, and have identified perc as a “possible to probable human carcinogen.”
The state of California, which declared perc a toxic chemical in 1991, has been more explicit. The state’s health officials say that the chemical can cause esophageal cancer, lymphoma, cervical and bladder cancer.
The dry cleaning industry, however, says perc is safe for dry cleaning because when clothes are properly cleaned there’s no chemical residue on the fabric, and as long as the equipment doesn’t leak, there’s no danger to the environment. Given these somewhat contradictory pieces of information, what can a wary consumer do?
First, you can forgo dry cleaning by shopping for clothing that doesn’t require it. You can ask that your clothes be wet cleaned — your “dry” cleaners may offer that option — or you can experiment at home with cold water, some clothing labeled dry clean can be gently washed.
Unfortunately, keeping at arm’s length from a dry cleaners won’t solve the perc problem: Also at issue, is the fact that if a dry cleaning machine leaks, perc can enter the ground and contaminate drinking water. It can also be an air pollutant since much of perc’s fumes escape into the outside through open windows, vents and air-conditioners.
Slowly, drycleaners are starting to use new machines that diminish the amount of perc that escapes during the cleaning process. The EPA is hopeful that environmental costs will be reduced thanks to recent improvements to dry cleaning equipment and more cautious operating practices.
Beginning July 27, the EPA will require all owners and operators of facilities using perc solvents to make sure their machines are inspected while in operation for vapor leaks monthly.
In January 2007, the California Air Resources Board put in place the country’s first statewide ban on perchloroethylene. The law requires that by 2023, no machines using perc will be allowed. And if a dry cleaners uses a machine that is 15 years or older, the machine must be disposed of by 2010. In California, one in 10 wells have been contaminated by perc.
In Missouri, all dry-cleaning facilities, including coin-operated dry cleaners, must register with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The facilities pay an annual surcharge based on the number of gallons of chlorinated solvents used during the calendar year. That money goes to the Hazardous Waste Program’s Drycleaning Environmental Trust Fund which investigates, assesses and re-mediates dry cleaning issues. In addition, Missouri dry-cleaning facilities that use PERC are required to pay an annual fee in accordance with EPA’s national perc air emissions standard.
Chris Allsbrook, a certified professional dry cleaner and a spokesperson for the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute International, says that all dry cleaning involves a solvent, whether it’s perchloroethylene, carbon dioxide or a petroleum-based solution. “Think of a front-loading washing machine,” she says. “You put in the clothes, close the door and as the clothes spin, the solvent is injected into the machine. The reason it’s called ‘dry’ cleaning is that the solvent dries immediately, similar to rubbing alcohol. There’s no dryer involved.” After the cleaning cycle, the solvent is drained and the “extract” cycle removes any excess solvent from the clothes.
The advantages to dry cleaning are that it can remove oil and grease stains that may be difficult to remove in ordinary home washing, according to the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute.
Percholoroethylene was introduced in the 1930s, according the institute. Until that time, the fluids used in the dry-cleaning process were dangerously flammable. Perc is a nonflammable solvent.
The institute believes that all dry cleaning procedures are safe as long as the machines don’t leak, says Allsbrook. But what about that dry-cleaning smell? That, he says, could be from the sizing used by some dry cleaners. “There should be no odor in a properly cleaned garment.”
Robert Randolph, an environmental engineer with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ air pollution division, says some people are more sensitive to the solvent smell than others. He says if using the dry cleaning method to clean clothes, it’s best to immediately remove the garment from the bag and air it out.
“Perchloroethylene (perc) has been found to be one of the best dry cleaning solvents,” he says. “The key is to make sure the dry cleaning equipment is working properly. “
Zebao Li with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deals with the environmental contamination caused by solvents such as perc. “The danger of perchloroethylene,” he says, “is if it leaks into the ground water. This will impact the drinking water.” Like Randolph, he stresses that dry cleaners have to be sure that their machines do not leak.
Cal Baier-Anderson, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, has worked previously with Superfund Hazardous Waste Sites. She says dry-cleaning facilities were often one of the sites she dealt with. “Perc contamination is a problem across the country,” says Baier-Anderson, who trained as a toxicologist. “When perc gets into ground water, it forms dense non-aquaeous phase liquids (DNAL) which pools at the bottom of the aquifer. Because it is dense, it drops to the bottom. It’s like a sponge that has too much soap in it – it continuously bleeds out more solvent. You could also compare it to putting honey into cold water. The honey drops to the bottom of the glass and slowly dissolves. In the case of perc, it takes a very long time to dissolve and is very hard to remove.”
In the 2008 Society of Toxicology Annual Report, Baier-Anderson noted the following:
Perc exposure is associated with both cancer and non-cancerous effects. Based on animal studies, there appear to be multiple types of tumors that are involved following both ingestion and inhalation, and there is a consistent association between human exposure and increased risk of several different types of cancer.
Baier-Anderson notes that, “as with any chemical, there are a number of areas of uncertainty that must be accounted for: Individual variability in response to exposure; the existence of individuals who might be more sensitive; the biological pathways leading to increased cancer risks have not been fully characterized — the impact is difficult to assess.”
So, avoiding dry cleaning using the perc solvent seems to make sense. But what are some of the alternative options?
- Petroleum-based and silicone-based solvents are alternatives to using perc. One common petroleum solvent is DF-2000, dubbed an “organic” solvent and made by ExxonMobil. Some dry cleaners have switched to DF-2000, but it is a known irritant and emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can enter the atmosphere. Because DF-2000 is a hydrocarbon, it is scientifically classified as “organic” but this is misleading. In this case, the scientific definition of “organic” should not be confused with something that is all-natural. As for silicone, the verdict is still out on it. The California Air Resources Board conducted a review and deemed that it is an acceptable alternative to perc. The Dry Cleaning Station, located in Minneapolis, is one company that uses silicone. CEO John Campbell says their product is called Green Earth and was developed by Procter & Gamble. It doesn’t clean quite as well as perc, but you can get as good results if you treat the fabric carefully, he said. In some respects, it’s a superior product, “It leaves clothes softer and fresher than perc. And if it gets spilled anywhere, it is not a contaminant,” he says. Campbell says the growing company, which he helped found in 1993, has about 100 stores in about 25 states.
- Another option to dry cleaning with perc is using liquid carbon dioxide as the solvent, along with detergent. This is a relatively new technology that uses high pressure to convert carbon dioxide gas to liquid form. It then becomes a carrier of biodegradable soaps, the same way water does in a washing machine. Minimal carbon dioxide is lost into the air, according to the environmental website, care2.com. Green Apple Cleaners, with locations in New York and New Jersey, uses this type of cleaning, employing a Solvair Cleaning System (pictured).
- Another idea is to wash the garment by hand — despite what a label might say, many clothes can be washed this way. Use a mild detergent and gently churn the clothes in cool water. Be sure not to twist or wring out wool or silk. For stains in wool or silk, try spot cleaning with vinegar or lemon juice, testing for dye color fastness first. Then carefully press water from the fabric. Lay wool items flat on a towel and shape before drying. Silk and rayon garments should be hung up.
- Yet another possibility is to wet clean the item. The Dry Cleaning Institute’s Chris Allsbrook says wet cleaning is similar to dry cleaning but doesn’t use solvents. The clothes are put into a front washer-type machine and as they spin, detergents are injected into the machine. When done, the clothes come out wet and are then put in a dryer. The EPA also offers a list of wet cleaners.
Consumer Reports was pleased with the state of California’s 2007 decision and with the direction the EPA is headed, but in a blog post states: “We’d like to see the EPA limit perc’s use once and for all – for every state in the country. In the meantime, consumers can help by seeking out facilities that use perc-free dry cleaning methods.”
Consumers can also find out more by visiting the EPA’s FAQ on dry cleaning.
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