If you are like many Americans, you’re bound to have a few items around the house that can’t be laundered in the weekly wash. And while you may have detected the faint whiff of chemicals when you picked up your freshly dry cleaned sweater last week, perhaps you didn’t think much of it. But it’s something to be concerned about.
If you’ve ever taken your clothes to a professional dry cleaner, the likelihood that they were cleaned with dangerous chemicals is quite high. Fortunately, there are ways to clean clothes bearing a “Dry Clean Only” label without harming workers, putting toxins into the environment, or bringing dangerous chemicals into your home.
Are Your Clothes Full of Perc?
According to the Occidental College’s Pollution Prevention Center, 85 percent of the more than 35,000 dry cleaners in the United States use perchloroethylene (or perc, for short) as a solvent in the dry cleaning process.
Perc is a synthetic, volatile organic compound (VOC) that poses a health risk to humans and a threat to the environment. Minimal contact with perc can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and skin and respiratory irritation. Prolonged perc exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and cancer. Perc has been identified as a “probable” human carcinogen by California’s Proposition 65.
Perc can enter the body through drinking water contamination, dermal exposure, or most frequently, inhalation. This is not only a health hazard and environmental justice issue for workers in the dry cleaning business, but for consumers who bring home clothes laden with perc. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that clothes dry cleaned with perc can elevate levels of the toxin throughout a home and especially in the room where the garments are stored. Nursing mothers exposed to perc may excrete it in their milk, placing their infants at risk.
Perc is not only hazardous for people who work in dry cleaning shops or bring home dry cleaned clothes. Perc can also get into our air, water, and soil during the cleaning, purification, and waste disposal phases of dry cleaning, according to the EPA.
What Are Your Options?
The good news is that there are nontoxic cleaning alternatives that are just as effective as dry cleaning with perc.
You might be able hand wash your delicate items at home. Take these clothes to a local cleaner for pressing only, to get a professionally crisp look without the toxins. If you’d rather forego do-it-yourself methods, two alternatives rise to the top in terms of environmental and health impacts— professional wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning.
There are no toxicity issues associated with either of these methods, says Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College, who has been studying the effects of perc dry cleaning and its alternatives for over ten years. professional wet cleaning is a safe, energy-efficient method of cleaning “Dry Clean Only” clothes that uses water as a solvent—rather than chemicals—with a combination of special soaps and conditioners.
When you have your clothes professionally wet cleaned, they are laundered in a computer-controlled washer and dryer that gently clean clothes, sometimes spinning as slowly as six revolutions a minute (a typical home washing machine may rotate clothes several dozen times per minute). These special machines can be programmed for variables such as time, temperature, and mechanical action, which allow cleaners to tailor the wash according to the type of fabric.
Noam Frankel, owner of Chicago-based wet cleaner, The Greener Cleaner, says there is no need for toxins in this cleaning process, where the key lies in knowing the pH level of the stain and treating the stain accordingly. Water-based stains, which he says make up the majority of the stains most cleaners see, generally come out with the standard wet-cleaning process. The remaining stains are oil-based and can be removed using specialized water-based pre-spotting solutions.
Because wet cleaning is free of VOCs, it eliminates health and safety risks, as well as environmental risks associated with traditional dry cleaning. As an added benefit, the equipment and operating costs are lower. While the biggest disadvantage to wet cleaning is that it produces waste water, Sinsheimer says it is still the most energy-efficient method. Unlike the other techniques, wet cleaning does not have an energy-intensive solvent recovery system. It also saves more water than dry cleaning. So, if wet cleaning is good for people and the environment, the real question lies in the quality of the wash.
According to Sinsheimer, just about every garment that can be dry cleaned can be wet cleaned. Occidental did a comparison study between dry and wet cleaning methods, performed by establishments that switched from dry to wet cleaning, and found no major differences in quality. While Consumer Reports tested this method in 2003 and was less than thrilled with the results, Sinsheimer notes that wet cleaning machines are more sophisticated today, and cleaners well-versed in proper wet cleaning techniques are more than satisfying their customers.
“We have helped over 60 cleaners switch to wet cleaning, and they are all growing very rapidly [due to happy customers],” he says.
Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning is a method that uses pressurized liquid CO2 in place of perc, in combination with other cleaning agents. CO2 is a nonflammable and nontoxic gas that occurs naturally in the environment. It becomes a liquid solvent under high pressure.
In this process, clothes are placed in a specialized machine, which is emptied of air. The pressure in the chamber is raised by injecting gaseous CO2, and then liquid CO2 is pumped into the mix. Clothes are rotated in a cycle that lasts five to 15 minutes at room temperature. The liquid CO2 dissolves dirt, fats, and oils in the clothing. At the end of the cleaning cycle, the liquid CO2 is pumped back into the storage tank, to be reused again, if possible. The remaining CO2 is released in the air.
While CO2 is a main greenhouse gas, no new CO2 is generated with this technology, so it does not contribute to global warming, says Sinsheimer. Liquid CO2 companies recapture the CO2 that’s already a by-product of several manufacturing processes, and they then recycle it into the liquid solvent for cleaning clothes. The main drawback is that, while the CO2 itself is both cheap and abundant, the cost of a CO2 dry cleaning machine is very high—a new machine costs around $40,000. Few dry cleaners are adopting this technique for this reason.
However, in the long run, these machines will save money by eliminating the disposal and regulatory costs associated with perc. With both wet and liquid CO2 cleaning, your clothes are also professionally finished, so you get a wrinkle-free pressing and an attention to detail that likely surpasses what you can do at home.
Other Methods: Beware
If your cleaner claims to be Earth-friendly, be sure to ask about the specific methods and chemicals she or he uses. Some dry cleaners will advertise as “green,” “organic,” or “environmentally friendly” when they are anything but safe for the Earth.
Hydrocarbon cleaning methods are not green at all. Hydrocarbon is a petroleum-based solvent and carries all the environmental concerns of petroleum, including the fact that it’s a major source of greenhouse gases.
Some hydrocarbon cleaners claim their methods are “organic,” which Sinsheimer says is misleading. “It’s the same thing as petroleum,” he says. “It’s also a VOC, though it’s not as toxic as perc.”
You might also run into cleaners that use the GreenEarth method, which replaces perc with a silicone based solvent called siloxane or D-5, which is similar to the base ingredients in deodorant and shaving creams. D-5 degrades to sand, water, and carbon dioxide. It’s chemically inert, which means no chemicals mix with your clothes while they are being cleaned.
However, Dow Corning, D-5’s creator, did a study that revealed an increased risk of uterine cancer in female rats that were exposed to D-5, which has led the EPA to note that it may be a carcinogen. Also, manufacturing D-5 requires chlorine, which releases carcinogenic dioxin during its own manufacture.
For the Future
The shift towards green dry cleaning is headed by California, where in January, the state committed to phasing out perc by 2023, offering grant money to cleaners that switch from perc to CO2 or wet cleaning. States like Massachusetts and New York are considering similar legislation. Contact your representatives, and ask them to support efforts to phase out perc. Also, encourage your local dry cleaner to switch to CO2 or wet cleaning.
Next time you spill coffee on your “Dry Clean Only” sweater, remember that you don’t have to put your health, workers, or the environment at risk. See the box on p. 6 for tips on how to hand wash your delicates yourself, or to find a green cleaner near you.