Soon we’ll be emptying our dressers and closets of wool sweaters and winter coats preparing to send them off to the cleaners for their final cleaning before storing them. If you thought the bill for dry cleaning half your winter wardrobe was the worst part of this seasonal ritual, guess again. Many dry cleaners have a very dirty habit. You see, dry cleaning isn’t dry at all. Around 28,000 dry cleaners nationwide use the liquid solvent perchloroethylene (PERC), or tetrachloroethylene, to remove stains and dirt from clothes.
You know that faint, sweet smell dry cleaned clothes have? Well that’s not the smell of clean—that’s the smell or PERC. Clothes treated with PERC retain some of the solvent, and once brought into the home, PERC becomes an indoor air pollutant—made all the worse this time of year because our homes are sealed up tight. Inhalation exposure to PERC can have symptoms ranging in severity from fatigue and nausea to confusion and even unconsciousness. Chronic effects can be serious, including damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys. PERC is also a probable human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
PERC can affect whole communities. It can escape from dry cleaners into the air through vents and into the soil and water through faulty equipment or improper handling. The general public’s exposure, even if low, may be persistent. Risk from exposure to PERC depends upon how much we are exposed to, how often and for how long, so those most at risk are dry cleaning workers and people that live very close to dry cleaning operations. Fortunately, the EPA ordered a phase-out of PERC machines at dry-cleaning shops in residential areas by 2020. However the agency has made no reference to plans for banning the solvent entirely. In California, a complete ban will be complete by 2023.
The alternative to PERC-based dry cleaning that’s in widest use is wet cleaning. Professional wet cleaning is nothing like home laundering. Wet cleaning uses specialized machines, non-toxic detergents and conditioners to gently wash many “dry clean only” garments. Silk, wool, linen, suede and leather can usually be wet cleaned with good results when done by a qualified professional. Wet cleaning uses more water than dry cleaning but produces no hazardous waste, air pollution or soil and water contamination. And other new processes are in development that will give consumers more choices. Cleaning processes using liquid carbon dioxide, silicone-based solvents and ultrasonic energy are being tested and show great promise for pollution prevention.
Chances are, more than one cleaner in your area is offering wet cleaning or another PERC-free service, so ask around. When we choose greener cleaners, everyone benefits: dry cleaners can avoid health problems and regulatory pressures brought on through the use of PERC, air and water are protected, and consumers can avoid serious health risks from inhaling or coming in contact with clothes cleaned with PERC.
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