If you’ve ever picked up clothes from the dry cleaner and carried them home in a closed car, you may have observed a couple things: 1) they make your eyes burn; and 2) if you’re asthmatic, they’ll kick off a little wheezing. You may have finally found yourself unable to stand it and resorted to rolling down the window to get some fresh air…in January.
There’s a reason for this. Dry cleaning remains one of the most toxic processes on Earth.
The name “dry cleaning” is a bit of a misnomer. Instead of being washed in water, dry cleaned garments are soaked in a liquid solvent that dissolves dirt, sweat and other stains without damaging delicate fabrics or those prone to water damage or shrinkage. In most cases, this solvent is perchloroethylene (commonly called “perc”), which is excellent for dissolving organic materials (it’s also used as a degreaser for engines and machinery). Effective it may be, but unfortunately, it’s considered to be both an environmental hazard and a hazard to human health. It has recently been officially classified as a “likely human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on a recommendation made in 2010 by the National Research Council, an independent scientific body that advises the federal government. (It’s the second most serious carcinogen classification, second only to “known human carcinogen.”) Prior to this ruling, perc was covered by an Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) classification from 1988 that did not consider it a cancer-causing substance.
With the decision to classify perc as a carcinogen (it’s already classified as an air pollutant by the federal Clean Air Act), the EPA set in place clean air standards for dry cleaners that use perc, which today include about 80 percent to 85 percent of the nation’s approximately 36,000 dry cleaners. For starters, dry cleaners located in residential buildings must phase out their use of the chemical by 2020. The agency will also be setting limits for the amount of perc allowed in drinking water and levels for cleaning up perc at Superfund (a federally designated toxic classificiation) sites throughout the country.
The ruling caused a bit of an uproar on both sides of the issue. Dry cleaning industry groups condemned the new ruling as overly harsh and have accused the EPA of overstepping the bounds of its regulatory authority. There’s a good reason for their objection: While there are alternative cleaning methods available for fabric and garments that can’t be dumped into a washing machine, implementing those methods would require many dry cleaners to scrap their old equipment, designed for use with perc, and invest in new machines.
For their part, environmental groups had hoped for more from the EPA, which maintained that it still doesn’t believe that wearing clothing cleaned with perc represents a health risk. (This is in direct conflict with guidelines published by Consumers’ Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, which maintains that long-term exposure to perc by people who wear a lot of dry-cleaned clothes could, in fact, escalate cancer risk.) Many consumer and environmental groups were disappointed that the agency didn’t outlaw the use of perc in dry cleaning outright. Still, some green groups are saying that it’s better than nothing.
“The evidence against this ubiquitous dry cleaning chemical piled up for years, like dirty laundry in the corner of the room,” said David Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist with Environmental Working Group (EWG). “It’s encouraging that EPA is completing this assessment so that health measures can be taken to protect workers and the public,” he said.
Carcinogens aside, it’s also a central nervous system depressant that can enter the body in two ways: via respiration and dermal exposure. (And you’re putting it next to your skin!) Some research has linked perc to liver and kidney damage and vision problems, and at least one study has found that extended exposure to perchloroethylene can raise the risk of Parkinson’s Disease nine-fold. At extremely high temperatures, perc decomposes into phosgene, a highly poisonous gas, and it’s a potent soil contaminant that can poison any groundwater it finds its way into in relatively small amounts.
Other studies, including one from Georgetown University, have found that certain fabrics retain perchloroethylene forever, meaning that with each subsequent dry cleaning, the perc levels in polyester, cotton and wool (but not silk, interestingly enough) continue to rise…meaning so too does the wearer’s exposure and health risks. Biomonitoring surveys have detected the solvent in the bodies of a majority of Americans as well as a lot of drinking water in the U.S. (You can find out exactly what types of contaminants have been found in your town’s drinking water on the Environmental Working Group’s Web site.)
Reconsidering taking those pants to the dry cleaner now?
So are many states, which have classified perchloroethylene as a hazardous/toxic chemical, requiring dry cleaners to follow special processes for its handling and disposal. Most states can list hundreds and even thousands of sites rendered toxic and unusable by dry cleaning businesses, and many can identify sites with toxic chemicals that have spread to adjoining neighborhoods, homes, wetlands, water tables, streams and rivers. Many states, after finding that residents near former dry cleaning sites were living in homes built on perc-contaminated land and drinking or showering in perc-contaminated water, have had to form dry cleaning toxic clean-up funds by apportioning some tax revenue into accounts used to investigate, test and clean up land contaminated by past and existing dry cleaners.
The State of California has gone further, putting legislation into place that will outlaw the use of perc in dry cleaning by 2023. Given the solvent’s toxicity and the fact that it’s not unknown for dry cleaners to pollute properties to the point where special “hazmat” (hazardous material) cleanup is required, many building owners in large cities have turned away traditional process dry cleaners as tenants, fearing contamination of properties for which they will later be financially responsible.
Many properties that once had dry cleaning businesses standing on them have had to undergo something called “soil remediation” before they could be resold or redeveloped. A process called “evaporative absorption” is often used to purify soil by heating it to very high temperatures – about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit – and then filtering it through compressed carbon to remove the contaminants. The soil can then be rehydrated (since the heating removes all water from the soil) and returned to the site. Given the costs in both cash and time for a process like that (about $1 million, in some cases, and many months), it’s no wonder that many landlords are leery of signing tenant contracts with dry cleaners.
So what’s the alternative for both human health and the environment?
For starters, not everything in your closet that says “Dry Clean Only” needs to be dry cleaned. Garment manufacturers, unwilling to sew giant labels into clothing with extensive care directions and mindful of not wanting to take responsibility for garment damage from home washing, often tag their merchandise with that limiting label for convenience’s sake. (Of course, understanding which clothes to take a risk on washing at home and which to leave to a dry cleaner is a judgment call that often results in regrettable miscalculations.)
While the EPA has dragged its feet to make the classification of perc as a likely carcinogen, the public, in many cases, has voted with its wallets. Aware that dry cleaning isn’t the greenest of processes (your nose and the stinging in your eyes alone will tell you that when you step into a dry cleaning establishment), Americans have been seeking alternatives to traditional dry cleaning processes. The desire for greener cleaning processes has given rise to a new industry: the eco-friendly dry cleaner.
Green “is becoming more and more of an issue,” Christopher White, a director for America’s Best Cleaners, which certifies cleaners for quality standards, told the Wall Street Journal. White says nearly two-thirds of America’s Best Cleaners’ 40 U.S. affiliates have stopped using perc altogether, and all of them offer at least one environmentally friendly alternative.
In fact, the term “dry cleaning” may have to be dropped altogether since one of these more environmentally friendly substitutes is, in fact, called “wet cleaning.” It’s a process that uses special machines and computerized models to stretch fabric before the process begins (to prevent shrinkage and retain the garment’s proper shape), then uses water and biodegradable soap to clean the fabric. Wet cleaners claim their process can be used on most “unwashable” fabrics and materials such as leather, suede, wool, silk and rayon. The EPA considers it the most environmentally friendly alternative to traditional dry cleaning, citing the fact that it involves “no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous waste generation, no air pollution and reduced potential for water and soil contamination.” The process, however, requires a complete swap-out of existing equipment and installation of the new “wet cleaning” equipment (including computers that design the optimal cleaning and stretching process for each garment). For existing, family-owned dry cleaners, a complete swap of technologies is far out of reach. It’s also not suitable for all traditional “dry clean only” fabrics such as heavy wool.
Other green dry cleaning processes use more earth-friendly solvents in place of perc. Liquefied carbon dioxide has been found to be somewhat
effective in removing stains from clothes (it’s superior in removing toxins and smoke from, say…fire damage) and CO2-cleaned clothing doesn’t off-gas volatile compounds (VoCs) the way traditionally dry cleaned clothes do. All in all, it’s a more environmentally friendly process: the carbon dioxide used is actually a by-product of existing industrial processes. Because of this, it’s using emissions that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere, according to Treehugger. But the equipment required to clean clothing using liquefied carbon dioxin is expensive, and dry cleaning industry associations and groups say the process still isn’t as effective as more traditional processes.
Another process was developed by Kansas City, Missouri-based GreenEarth LLC, a company that is partly owned by consumer giant Procter & Gamble and General Electric (GE). It uses an odorless, colorless liquid called Siloxane D5 as a solvent. The company touts its process as equally effective as perc-based cleaning and no more expensive (unlike the liquid carbon dioxide process) but far less toxic: the silicone used safely breaks down into the three natural elements it is made from: sand (SiO2) and trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide. (“If you wanted to, you could safely rub it into your skin,” the company says.) However, a two-year-long study of rats conducted by Dow Corning found a significant increase in uterine tumors among female rats after extended exposure to high levels of D5. A spokesman for GreenEarth, Tim Maxwell, told the Wall Street Journal that a follow-up study showed Siloxane D5 doesn’t pose the same risks to humans. For its part, the EPA says it will continue to evaluate D5 for toxicity and exposure.
Like most industries, green dry cleaning isn’t without its share of greenwashing, or touting non-existent environmental benefits for a good corporate image. Some would-be green dry cleaners are using a solvent called DF-2000 that is, in fact, a petroleum product. According to Treehugger, “It is indeed organic in the same way gasoline and perc are organic: it contains a chain of carbon atoms.” Though it’s less toxic than perc, it’s not particularly biodegradable, and it apparently contributes to urban smog. It’s a bit like the ridiculous premise some politicians have tried with playing down the severity of oil spills: oil is a “natural” substance, therefore spilling it shouldn’t be a big deal. (So is arsenic a “natural substance,” but chances are you wouldn’t want it in your drinking water.) Use of the term “organic” is rife in the dry cleaning industry, but it’s important to remember that the word “organic” is regulated only when it comes to food. For other products, such as cosmetics, soaps, skin care products, household cleaners and – yes – dry cleaners, the word can be thrown around at will, and very often is.
In the end, just like with every other industry, consumers seeking green alternatives for specialty cleaning will need to do their homework to find out which process their green dry cleaner of choice is employing. Many environmentalists give the biggest thumbs-up to both the “wet cleaning” method (find companies near you that use the process here, but be warned, there are whole states that lack even a single wet cleaning facility) and the liquified carbon dioxide method. (You can find dry cleaners using the carbon dioxide method here.)
Alternatively, you can skip purchasing clothing made of fussy fabrics that require dry cleaning. Everyone knows leather jackets look best when they are grungy, anyway.