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Conventional dry cleaning is risky to public health and the environment. Consumers should minimize traditional dry cleaning services and wash more clothes at home in cold water and air dry when possible. Designers can help by minimizing the reliance on fabrics that need to be dry-cleaned and by educating their customers about cleaning alternatives.

The Environmental Problems of Dry Cleaning

On the surface, dry cleaning seems like a harmless and almost miraculous process. For consumers, the dry cleaner whisks away their beloved, and seemingly difficult to clean, one-of-a-kind pieces and delicate garments, and returns them perfectly pressed and in like-new condition. Even fashion houses rely heavily on the service for sample maintenance. But the dry cleaning process can endanger our health and our environment.

The conventional dry cleaning industry uses a chemical called perchloroethylene - or "PERC" - to clean clothes. Known to cause a number of adverse health effects, high-level exposure to PERC can affect the central nervous system, kidney, and liver, and cause mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, and fatigue. Chronic exposure to lower levels of the chemical can lead to cognitive and motor functioning impairment, headaches, vision impairment, and in more isolated cases, cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage, and kidney effects.1 PERC has also been demonstrated to have reproductive or developmental effects, and may cause several types of cancer.2

Conventional dry cleaners are responsible for the majority (60 percent) of the total use of PERC in the United States3. Through routine use of this dangerous chemical, drycleaners become a major source of toxic air pollution and hazardous waste in many neighborhoods and communities.4 In fact, three-quarters of PERC drycleaners in the United States are estimated to have contaminated soil and groundwater where they are located.5 Off-site disposal of hazardous waste by cleaners has resulted in PERC becoming a common contaminant at more than half of our nation's Superfund hazardous waste sites.6

Customers who regularly dry clean clothes can affect their own indoor air quality by bringing a trace of toxic PERC residue into their homes where it can linger in the air, even when the clothes are not being worn. In its investigation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment found PERC in the indoor air of many homes. The Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that in homes and cars containing fresh dry cleaning, PERC concentrations sometimes rise above levels of concern.7

The levels of PERC exposure in the dry-cleaning facility are also of concern. Workers handling PERC have been found to be at an increased risk of esophagus and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders, and reduced fertility.8 For all of these reasons, in 2007 California took a bold step of phasing out PERC dry cleaning. The law prohibits the installation of new PERC dry cleaning machines, and retires the use of older machines after 15 years of service, with all PERC machines in the state required to be taken out of service by 2023. As a result, the number of PERC dry cleaning machines in California has dropped by half.9 Illinois is not far behind, having recently introduced legislation also targeting the use of PERC in the dry cleaning industry.10 Massachusetts and New Jersey provide incentives for conversion from dry to wet-cleaning machines.11

Alternatives to Dry Cleaning with PERC

Fortunately, there are alternatives to conventional dry-cleaning that do not use PERC. However, consumers should beware: many alternatives that are promoted as "organic" or "green" are not harmless to human health and the environment. It is important to understand the distinctions among these choices to be sure your "green" dry cleaner is truly as advertised.

Not Really Green

Petroleum-based solvents12
Often misleadingly termed "organic," these solvents are volatile organic carbon (VOC) compounds derived from petroleum with trade names like Stoddard, DF-2000, PureDry, EcoSolve, and Shell Solution 140 HT. The organic claim is attributed to the fact that the synthetic solvents are made of chains of carbon, which is misleading to the average consumer. This is not a true "green" alternative.
Silicone-based solvents
D-5, or GreenEarth, replaces PERC with a silicone based solvent called siloxane, which is an extremely persistent chemical with a questionable toxicity profile. Some studies have found an increased risk of uterine cancer in laboratory animals, which concerned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it may be a carcinogen.13 Also, manufacturing D-5 requires chlorine, which can release carcinogenic dioxin during manufacture.14 This is also not a true "green" alternative.
Home dry cleaning: "Freshness" does not equal "clean"
Do-it-yourself dry cleaning products are available for purchase in grocery and hardware stores. These products are not actually intended to replace dry cleaning service, but rather to freshen, clean, and extend wear between professional cleanings. Consumer Reports found that these products have poor results and leave a strong perfume smell.15 In addition to the lack of effectiveness, the leading manufacturer does not provide information regarding the chemical composition of products. As a result, we do not recommend them.

Truly Green

Carbon dioxide
A safe alternative to conventional PERC dry cleaning, this method pressurizes carbon dioxide (recycled from other processes) into a liquid solvent that cleans the garment. However, because the equipment for this alternative is costly, few dry cleaners are adopting this approach.16 Also, beware: some carbon dioxide cleaners use a Solvair machine that adds the toxic solvent glycol ether to the process, which disqualifies it as being truly "green."
BEST OPTION: Professional wet cleaning
This preferred method uses no toxic chemicals, produces no hazardous waste or air pollution, and is extremely energy-efficient.17 Most clothes labeled dry clean can in fact be cleaned using water as long as conditions are precisely controlled using specialized computerized systems.18 Professional wet cleaning machines mechanically simulate hand-washing by using a computer to carefully control the rotation of the drum to minimize agitation while providing sufficient movement for effective cleaning of delicate garments. The method also relies on specially formulated detergents that are precisely dosed and timed during the wash cycle and specialized finishing equipment. Wet clean dryers are equipped with moisture sensors to ensure that garments retain the appropriate amount of moisture after the dry cycle is complete. Specialized pressing machines are then used to enhance the restoration of constructed garments, such as suit jackets, suit pants, and tailored items. To find wet-cleaners or carbon dioxide cleaners in your area, consult www.nodryclean.com.
Wash your clothes in cold water and air dry when possible
Thirty-six percent of total household hot water is used for laundering.19 Therefore, switching to cold water during washing is a great opportunity to reduce the cost and carbon footprint of your lifestyle. Experts estimate that 30 million tons of carbon dioxide could be saved each year if all U.S. washers simply switched to cold water. For households with electric dryers, this switch would translate to an 85 percent savings on electricity used for washing.20 As an added bonus, cold-water washing and the minimization of drying and ironing has a positive impact on the brightness and durability of your wardrobe. For those who worry about the reduced effectiveness of washing in coldwater, a number of brands have developed coldwater specific detergents that claim to remove stains even better than conventional competing detergents.21

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), "Toxicological Profile for Tetrachloroethylene (PERC)," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1997. www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=265&tid=48
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. U.S. EPA. "Plain English Guide for Perc Cleaners," Design for the Environment, 1996. www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/perc/index.htm
  5. U.S. EPA. State Coalition for Remediation of Dry Cleaners News, Dec 2010. www.drycleancoalition.org/download/news1210.pdf
  6. U.S. EPA, Common Chemicals Found At Superfund Sites, 2011. www.epa.gov/oerrpage/superfund/health/contaminants/radiation/chemicals.htm
  7. Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, "Fact Sheet: Dry Cleaners and PCE", 2002. www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/drycleaner.pdf; Thomas K.W., et al. "Effect of dry-cleaned clothes on tetrachloroethylene levels in indoor air, personal air, and breath for residents of several New Jersey homes," Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 1(4):475-490. 1991; ATSDR, 1997.
  8. New York State Department of Health, "Fact Sheet: Tetrachloroethylene (PERC) in Indoor and Outdoor Air," p. 3-4, May 2003. www.health.ny.gov/environmental/chemicals/tetrachloroethene/docs/fs_perc.pdf
  9. Zandonella, C., "EPA Okay's California PERC Ban," NRDC Smarter Living, March 11, 2011. www.simplesteps.org/health/youths-adults/epa-oks-californias-perc-ban
  10. Illinois General Assembly, 97th General Assembly Feb 9,2011, EPA-Perchloroethylene Ban, SB1617. www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?GA=97&DocTypeID=SB&DocNum=1617&GAID=11&Se ssionID=84&LegID=57565
  11. Toxics Use Reduction Institute, "Wet Cleaning Demonstration Site Matching Grants," TURI. www.turi.org/Our_Work/Business/Small_Businesses/Dry_Cleaning; New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Dry Cleaner Equipment Replacement Reimbursement Program. www.nj.gov/dep/enforcement/drycleanergrant.html
  12. Manning, J. "Are There Realistic Dry-Cleaning Alternatives to Perc?" Environmental Chemistry.com, 2006. http://environmentalchemistry.com/yogi/environmental/200605drycleaning.html
  13. U.S. EPA, "Siloxane D5 in Dry Cleaning Applications Fact Sheet," Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, 2005. www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/d5fs3.pdf
  14. Dos Santos, A. "Green "Dry" Cleaning," Green American Magazine, Sep/Oct 2007. www.greenamerica.org/pubs/realgreen/articles/drycleaning.cfm
  15. Stephens, J. "Dryel: IFI's Evaluation of Stain and Odor Removal," Fabricare, 1999. www.dlionline.org/pdf/RF/RF01May99.pdf
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sinsheimer, P. "Comparison of Electricity and Natural Gas Use of Five Garment Care Technologies," Southern California Edison Design & Engineering Services, 2008.
  18. Sinsheimer P., et al. "The Viability of Professional Wet Cleaning as a Pollution Prevention Alternative to Perchloroethylene Dry Cleaning," Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association 57:172–178, 2007.
  19. Sabaliunas, D., et al. "Residential Energy Use and Potential Conservation Through Reduced Laundering Temperatures in the United States and Canada," Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 2(2):142-53. 2006.
  20. Cook, O. "Energy Tip #17: Wash and rinse in cold water" The Terrapass Footprint Blog, 2006. www.terrapass.com/blog/posts/energy-tip-17-w
  21. Proctor & Gamble, "Tide Cold Water Liquid Laundry Detergent: Product Info," 2011. www.tide.com/en-US/product/tide-coldwater.jspx#info

last revised 2/5/2012

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