When I was young, I assumed dry cleaning meant that clothing was, somehow magically, cleaned with hot air. It was not until I was older that I began to suspect the chemical smell from freshly dry cleaned clothes. When I learned what dry cleaning really is, I was a bit shocked. I wouldn’t say I was filled with disillusion, but definitely a shudder of “eeeew” shot through me.
The dry cleaning industry started in the 19th century, and volatile liquids such as gasoline and naphtha were used to clean clothing and linens. Clothing is washed with a liquid, it’s just not water. The flammability of those early solvents led to the use of other solvents, and today eight out of 10 professional dry cleaners in the United States use the chemical perchloroethylene (commonly called perc) to clean clothes. And although perc is less flammable, it is still an awful chemical to have so prominently in our lives. It is outlawed in many countries, and California plans to phase out perc by 2023, with a ban on new perc equipment in effect soon.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has recommended that perc be handled as a human carcinogen, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified it as a possible human carcinogen. In addition, according to the EPA:
- Effects resulting from acute, inhalation exposure of humans to perc vapors include irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes, kidney dysfunction, and at lower concentrations, neurological effects, such as reversible mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, sleepiness, and unconsciousness.
- Effects from chronic inhalation are neurological, including headaches, impairments in cognitive and motor neurobehavioral functioning and color vision decrements. Other effects noted in humans include cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage and possible kidney effects.
- Studies of dry cleaning workers exposed to perc and other solvents suggest an increased risk for a variety of cancers.
- Perc released into the air is also an environmental concern as it pollutes air and groundwater.
The dry cleaning industry (and industries that support them) would be pretty shortsighted not to be exploring other options, given the increasing evidence against perc. These are the methods currently available:
Several petroleum-based solvents have been created as an alternative to perc, but they are still irritants and emit VOCs. The most notable one is a hydrocarbon called DF-2000, which is made by ExxonMobil. Now for the tricky part. Any chemical with a chain of carbon is scientifically classified as “organic,” like gasoline and perc. Some dry cleaners that have switched from using perc to using DF-2000, claim that they offer “organic dry cleaning.” They are using an organic solvent, in the scientific sense of the word, but it can be misleading for the consumer who thinks that “organic” is referring to an all-natural, safe method. DF-2000 is classified as a VOC and it is listed by the EPA as a neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers. If your dry cleaner offers organic dry cleaning, check to see what exactly they mean.
GreenEarth is the brand name for siloxane D5, a silicone-based chemical that has been used for a long time in personal care products. GreenEarth claims its solvent is safe and degrades into sand, water and carbon dioxide. But the jury is still out on this one. California’s Air Resources Board conducted an 18-month review of the health and safety research available on D5 liquid silicone. They concluded that while D5 does not qualify for a non-toxic alternative dry cleaning solvent grant program, it does remain an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative. In July 2005, the EPA received the final results of a two-year study in rats, which confirmed a significant increase in uterine tumors following exposure to 160 ppm of D5, the highest concentration tested in the study. No significant increase in tumors was observed at lower doses. The EPA is still assessing the health risks.
This is a new technology that uses liquid carbon dioxide under high pressure. Carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning uses non-toxic, liquid CO2 (at room temperature) as the cleaning solvent, along with detergent. The CO2 is captured as a by-product of existing industrial processes, thereby utilizing emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Since minimal CO2 is lost into the air with each load of clothing, its impact on global warming is minimal. CO2 cleaning also uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning, which involves heating the solvent.
Carbon dioxide is normally a gas at room temperature. But under high pressure, it converts into a liquid and can act as a carrier of biodegradable soaps in much the same way that water does in a washing machine. And when the dry cleaning cycle stops, it turns back into a gas, much of which is reused. Clothes cleaned in this process dry instantly, are cool to the touch and have no odor.
A Consumer Reports study showed that the CO2 cleaning method performed better than silicone-solvent based cleaning (a close second), professional wet-cleaning and traditional perc dry cleaning. This method has been highly touted by environmentalists. Unfortunately, the detergents used in CO2 cleaning may contain some VOCs. The equipment for carbon dioxide cleaning is very expensive and is all licensed by the company that developed the method. It may be a less viable financial alternative for small businesses who could only convert to this method by becoming a Hangers Cleaners franchise.
Professional Wet Cleaning
Most garments labeled “dry clean only” can be cleaned with water through a process called wet-cleaning. This is a time-intensive
process that takes some skill and special equipment, so it is costlier. The trick to professional wet cleaning is the computerized operations that allow for precise control in order to gently wash, dry and finish garments.
The EPA considers it one of the safest professional cleaning methods; its benefits include no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous waste generation, no air pollution and reduced potential for water and soil contamination. In terms of its impact on water and energy consumption, a comprehensive study by UCLA found that wet cleaning has only a minor impact on water use and that it uses slightly less electricity and slightly more natural gas than dry cleaning.
The performance of wet-cleaning was weaker than that of CO2 and silicone-solvent based dry cleaning, though it’s just as effective, or better than perc dry cleaning’s performance. Wet cleaning is a win-win method.
- Buy clothing and other fabric items that don’t require dry cleaning, saving you money and protecting your health and the environment.
- If you must have clothing dry cleaned at a cleaner that uses perc, you need to know that low levels of perchloroethylene can be brought into your house along with your clothes, and it offgasses into your indoor air. Remove the garments from the plastic bags and let them air in a protected outdoor spot for several days.
- To find dry cleaners that use CO2, go to www.findco2.com
- To find dry cleaners that use wet cleaning, go to www.epa.gov.
- To find dry cleaners that use silicone-based solvents, go to Green Earth Cleaning
- Don’t necessarily believe the “dry clean only” label on tags because they can list no more than one cleaning method and can be held liable if an item is damaged when the owner follows the listed procedure. Yet many of these items can be safely washed at home, either by hand or using a
washing machine’s delicate cycle. See Wet Clean
Wool, Silk and Rayon for tips on wet cleaning at home.