Dry Cleaning: How Safe is that Suit?

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perc, dry cleaner, dry cleaning safety, hazardous chemicals, air quality

The chemical perchloroethylene (or “perc”) might not ring a bell, but it is likely be found in your home. Considered by the EPA to be both a health and environmental hazard, it is a solvent used by most dry cleaners across the country for more than 70 years. It is shown to cause liver cancer and can even harm the central nervous system in lab animals.

When clothes are cleaned with perc, they will actually off-gas this substance into the air. It most commonly enters the body through the air, but can also be absorbed through the skin or found in drinking water.

“When you go and pick up that bag and bring it home, you still have perchloroethylene off-gassing or coming off the clothes,” said Melanie Marty of the California EPA. “You don’t want something in widespread use that’s been shown to be a carcinogen.”

Is it necessary to use toxic chemicals to get our clothes “clean”? Before you get too depressed, let’s examine some solutions.

Policy Changes

California passed a ban to phase out the use of perc by 2023. Although this is certainly a step in the right direction, most of us don’t live in California and don’t want to wait 15 years to clean a suit or suede coat.

Hand Washing

Many clothes that are labeled “dry clean only” can in fact be hand washed, especially if some tricks are applied. This also saves the hassle and cost of taking garments to the cleaners.

“Green” Cleaners

Although 85% of dry cleaners use perc, what about the other 15%? Many of them use a process called wet cleaning. This process uses a small amount of water and detergent within a machine that is programmed to adapt to the garment. This process is considered effective and safe, while using less water and energy compared to traditional dry cleaning.

Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning uses pressurized liquid CO2 and other cleaning agents instead of perc. Liquid CO2 becomes a liquid solvent under high pressure and dissolved dirt and oils from clothing. This method is not common because the cost of the needed machinery is $40,000. The CO2 itself however is a byproduct of some industrial processes and is cheap, plentiful, and non toxic.

To find a cleaner in your area, visit the Occidental College database. It can also be helpful to speak with your local cleaner and let them know that there is a demand for safer alternatives to perc. The future ban in California will also help push the industry as a whole towards safer alternatives, so change may be on the horizon.


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