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A "Perc" habit: the dirty secrets of dry cleaning

If you own a suit, most likely you are a perc-user. 85% of dry cleaning facilities in the US and 90% of those in the EU use the solvent perchloroethylene (PERC), despite its being classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Walk into a dry cleaners and you’re basically guaranteed to have perc on your breath for the next day. Simply wearing perc-cleaned clothes or just hanging them in your closet increases your exposure.

The EPA’s own studies “indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical both in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored and as they wear dry-cleaned clothing.”

Why worry about your exposure?

In a Consumers Union from March of 1996 found that people who wear one freshly dry-cleaned garment one day a week over a 40-year period could inhale enough perc “to measurably increase their risk of cancer” by as much as 150 times what is considered “negligible risk.”

Risks are even higher for those who live near a dry cleaning shop (In Manhattan, nearly 88,000 people live within 20 meters of a dry cleaner) and studies show that pregnant dry cleaning workers are 2–4 times as likely to have a miscarriage as pregnant women in other professions.

Now found in the water you drink

The problem doesn’t just end with your clothes or for those living near dry cleaners, 70% of all perc used ends up in the environment where it contaminates both ground- and drinking water.

According to a government survey, perc now contaminates up to 25% of US drinking water and at least 1.2 million Americans are exposed to perc in drinking water at levels that exceed safety limits.

The California example

While Europe has begun regulating dry cleaning operations using perc under the EU VOC directive, only California has instituted an outright ban of future perc use.

This January the California Air Resources Board (ARB) adopted regulations to require dry cleaners to phase out perc by 2023. Beginning on January 1, 2008 no new perc-using machines will be installed in California with a complete ban of their use going into effect in January 1, 2023.

There is no national copycatting of California’s example. In fact, while the EPA advises consumers to “keep exposure to perchloroethylene emissions from newly dry-cleaned materials to a minimum”, they have refused to back a proposal to phase out all perc machines.

The Sierra club is sueing them for non-compliance with the Clean Air Act. “EPA’s failure to take an obvious and cost-effective step to protect millions of at risk Americans against a known toxin reflects a widespread breakdown in the agency’s air toxics program.”

Last July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued an indictment of the EPA’s failure to follow the Clean Air Act and one month later, a federal court found EPA’s air toxics efforts “grossly delinquent.”

Non-toxic, green, organic, wet: What are the alternatives?

They’re marketed as “non-toxic”, “green”, “organic”, “environmentally safe”, among others, and in the past decade these perc-free alternatives have become viable options for consumers, and business owners, something cited by the California Air Resources Board Chairman, Dr. Robert Sawyer, as motivation for California’s ban. “We have safer alternatives to the perc dry cleaning process so the board chose to close the door on this method of cleaning clothes.”

Some of the earlier alternatives, like Chevron-Phillip’s EcoSolve or Exxon D-2000 (marketed as an “environmentally safe dry-cleaning solvent“), are more environmentally benign than perc, but are still petroleum-based. Today, there are other options that don’t rely on fossil fuel inputs.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2). Hitting the market in 1997, this safe and stable compound make it one of the most popular perc substitutes, but the cost of CO2 machines – $90,000 more than traditional machines- may make it a less viable alternative. Dry cleaners can only convert to this method by becoming a Hangers franchise.
  • Silicon. Environmental concerns are non-existent as it “degrades to sand, water and carbon dioxide and is listed by EPA as a substitute for ozone-depleting chemicals” (EPA, 2006), but health concerns are mixed. Although the active ingredient, decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (or D5) is also used in roll-on deodorants, shampoos, and body lotions, the EPA doesn’t have enough data to determine whether it poses a cancer risk to humans. It’s backed by two of the biggest multinationals, General Electric and Procter & Gamble, and once again, it’s a propriety technology and only provided by GreenEarth franchises.
  • Wet cleaning. It’s basically a return to soap and water, but done with high-tech washing and drying machines that regulate water temperature and agitation, which proponents claim are the real culprits for shrinkage. There are no health or environmental concerns and could result in lower dry cleaning bills since the machines are cheaper than those using perc and owners claim electricity savings with this method.

But do they work? The results may surprise you.

Throwing traditional perc-based dry cleaning into a mix with the newer options, Consumer Reports tested the “Dry-cleaning Alternatives” to discover where to go for the least shrinkage, stretching, piling and fading. Surprisingly, perc didn’t deliver the best results.

  • “Carbon dioxide. This method gave the best results… The clothing didn’t change shape, shrink, or stretch. There was little or no change in the color or the texture of the fabrics; only one silk shirt faded slightly after the third cleaning.
  • “Silicone-based. …This method was almost as good. All three cleaners did a good job on the blouse. Two of the three skirts came out well, although pleats were not pressed as tidily as they could have been. One skirt shrank slightly. All three jackets showed moderate to severe pilling.
  • “Wet-cleaning. This method left the lambswool jacket severely pilled in all three cases. Two jackets looked as though they had not been pressed. One shrank. The sizing was removed from one skirt, so it looked limp. Another skirt shrank from a size 14 to about a size 10. The silk blouses took to water fairly well: Only one showed slight fading.
  • “Percholorethylene. These results surprised us, considering that perc is so widely used. The lambswool jacket was severely pilled. The skirt shrank almost one size. The silk blouse faded and had a white, frosted look. This is the only method that resulted in an odor being left on the clothes.”

Perc-free dry cleaning locators

For Silicon Cleaning, the GreenEarth site will help you locate a facility in the US, Canada and Japan, here.

In Canada, the Center for Pollution Prevention has their own locator.

For Carbon dioxide locations you will need to look for a Hanger’s Dry Cleaning franchise near you (in the US, Canada and Europe).