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Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: Greener Cleaners

Nontoxic technology throws cold water on dry cleaning

by Kim Erickson

In the beginning there was soap and water. But over the years, we've increasingly turned to dry cleaning to handle our laundry needs. This method (not really dry at all) often involves submerging garments in perchloroethylene, or perc. Used by 80 to 85 percent of the dry cleaners in the United States, this chlorinated hydrocarbon was originally developed as a metal degreaser for airplane parts before the dry-cleaning industry adopted it more than 50 years ago.

Classified as a hazardous substance by the EPA, perc has been linked to cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders, and liver and kidney damage. Employees in dry-cleaning plants are at particular risk. A 1994 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that dry cleaners have seven times the average rate of esophageal cancer and twice the rate of bladder cancer. Other studies link perc to miscarriages and low birth weights among pregnant workers.

Until the 1980s, it was legal for dry cleaners to pour used perc down the drain. According to a government survey, perc now contaminates up to 25 percent of U.S. drinking water. The 35,000 dry-cleaning establishments in the United States and Canada use about 300 million pounds of perc annually, recycling less than 5 percent, leaving most of the rest to evaporate into the atmosphere.

People living near a dry cleaner are exposed to high levels of perc as its vapors invade their homes. Just having your clothes dry-cleaned can expose you to unhealthy levels. Hung in your closet, these garments release residual perc into your home. Consumers Union found that people who wear freshly dry-cleaned clothing once a week are at an increased risk of developing cancer.

Fortunately, an alternative is catching on. "Wet cleaning" uses water, nontoxic soap, and special washers and dryers that are calibrated to safely clean a broad variety of materials, including leather. And except for a few fabrics such as antique satin, wet cleaning is comparable to dry cleaning in quality, price, and turnaround time.

Despite perc's health and environmental consequences, many dry cleaners are still reluctant to shift to wet cleaning. Industry associations encourage them to meet emissions regulations by purchasing newer perc machines, even though at $60,000 apiece they're more expensive than equivalent wet-cleaning equipment. "Dry clean only" labels add to the problem by raising the threat of liability if an alternative cleaning method damages clothing. And, as Jonathan Grossman, owner of the Natural Valet in Huntington Beach, California, points out, "Chemicals are easy. Wet cleaning is more labor-intensive because each garment gets individual attention."

In 1992 the EPA created a partnership with the dry-cleaning industry that has resulted in a voluntary reduction of perc use by half. However, the agency hasn't come up with any clear-cut plan to phase out perc and has delayed publishing a risk-assessment report for more than three years. Some states aren't waiting for industry volunteers or more stringent federal regulations. New York, for instance, has banned dry-cleaning stores in residential buildings, forcing the operations to either relocate or convert to an alternative method of cleaning.

Until perc is completely phased out, there are steps consumers can take to limit their perc exposure. The easiest is to avoid buying clothing that requires dry cleaning. Air out your clothes and use a lint brush to cut back on trips to the dry cleaner. Remember that some fabrics, such as cotton, linen, and certain silks, can be hand-washed in cold water, despite manufacturers' dry-clean-only warnings. Or give wet-cleaning a try. Not only will the planet breathe easier, but your clothes will smell a lot fresher.


Kim Erickson writes on health and environmental issues.

To find a wet cleaner in your area, check out the Greenpeace Web site at www.greenpeaceusa.org, or call (800) 326-0959. Ecomat, an East Coast wet-cleaning chain, will pick up and deliver your laundry by UPS. For more information, call (800) 299-2309.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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