If you’re like most people, you drop off clothes at the dry cleaner every now and then. And, like most people, you’ve probably noticed that faint chemical smell emanating from your freshly cleaned clothes. You may not have thought about it, but that smell may be something to worry about. Most professional dry cleaners use toxic chemicals in their cleaning processes. In fact, most of the nearly 35,000 dry cleaners in the United States use perchloroethylene (perc) as a dry cleaning solvent.
What is Perc?
Perc, a volatile organic compound, is a health hazard and an environmental contaminant. Even insignificant contact with the chemical can give you headaches, nausea, dizziness and skin irritation. More lengthy exposure is suspected to cause cancer, liver disease and kidney damage. At least one state has called perc a “probable” carcinogen.
How Does it Cause Damage?
Perc gets into the body through skin contact, contaminated drinking water or from the air. Workers in the dry cleaning industry are at risk, as are customers who wear clothes saturated with the chemical. Perc also gets into the air and water supply during the dry cleaning process.
Is There Another Option?
“Organic dry cleaning” is becoming a viable option in many places. New types of non-toxic cleaning processes do not use perc or other dangerous chemicals. Professional wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning are safe, effective on delicate, “dry clean only” garments, and better for human health and the environment.
What is Professional Wet Cleaning?
Professional wet cleaning uses water and special detergents. The clothes are washed in a gentle machine that spins only a few times a minute. No toxic chemicals are needed because the stains are treated according to their pH levels. Wet cleaning is more energy efficient than traditional dry cleaning and it saves more water.
Most dry cleanable items can also be wet cleaned. Studies have shown little difference in quality between the two methods. Training in correct stain removal methods and new, sophisticated machinery has made wet cleaning a viable, green dry cleaning alternative.
What About Liquid CO2 Cleaning?
In the liquid CO2 method, liquid carbon dioxide and other cleaning substances are used instead of perc. CO2 is a naturally occurring, non-toxic substance. When CO2 gas is pressurized, it liquefies and becomes a powerful solvent. After the cleaning cycle, the CO2 is returned to a storage tank to be reused. Although the process requires special, expensive machines, the process of CO2 dry cleaning eliminates the disposal procedures and regulatory issues of using perc.
Are There any Other Methods of Organic Dry Cleaning?
Many dry cleaners claim to be eco-friendly. However, some that claim to be green or organic are actually not. Hydrocarbon cleaners use a petroleum-based cleaning solvent. While the hydrocarbons are less toxic than perc, they are not exactly organic. And the “Green Earth” method uses a silicone solvent that does not leave chemical residues on the clothes. However, there is some speculation that the solvent could cause cancer. That question is still being studied.
What is the Future of Organic Dry Cleaning?
California is leading the way toward changing over to green dry cleaning. Perc is being phased out and money given to cleaners who switch their process to CO2 or wet cleaning. Other states have passed, or are considering, similar legislation. In the meantime, look for organic wet cleaning or CO2 dry cleaners in your neighborhood.