Smarter Living: Family Health

Dry-cleaned clothing may look spotless, but the chemical perchloroethylene (PERC) is spoiling our air and groundwater while endangering the health of workers and consumers, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Four years ago, California banned the use of PERC in dry-cleaning, and in an important move earlier this week, the EPA gave its approval to the statewide ban.

PERC can harm the liver, kidneys, and nervous system and may cause cancer, according to federal health agencies. Yet the chemical is used in more than 28,000 dry-cleaning facilities nationwide. Although the EPA ordered a phase-out of PERC machines at dry-cleaning shops in residential areas by 2020, the agency has never fully prohibited its use.

Not so California. In 2007 the state took the bold step of prohibiting all businesses from installing new PERC dry-cleaning machines. The law required that older machines be shut down by 2010 and all PERC machines taken out of service by 2023. Over the past decade, the number of dry-cleaning machines dropped from over 4,000 to less than 2,000 statewide, and the number of wet cleaners, a safer alternative, has tripled, according to the state’s Air Resources Board.

"This is really important because PERC is an unnecessarily hazardous chemical that we don’t need in our bodies, our babies, and our breast milk," said Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at NRDC. The chemical has been found in breast milk and is detected more often in people living in urban areas than in rural areas.

PERC causes liver and kidney damage and is toxic to the nervous system even in low amounts. Repeated exposure can lead to headaches, loss of coordination, and cognitive problems. It may also cause cancer in humans, according to a 2005 analysis by the National Toxicology Program, a federal agency that evaluates chemicals. The EPA named PERC as a federal hazardous air pollutant nearly two decades ago.

Air pollution is a major concern because the chemical readily evaporates and poses health risks when inhaled by people who work in dry-cleaning facilities as well as customers who take home freshly cleaned and bagged clothes. Homes containing recently cleaned clothes can have levels of PERC that are two to 30 times greater than background levels. Apartments located above dry-cleaning shops also have higher levels of the chemical.

Furthermore, PERC can contaminate groundwater. Federal law requires municipal water suppliers to test for PERC and remove it if found. The chemical is also used in certain consumer products such as degreasers and adhesives.

The EPA’s OK means that the California ban can supersede the weaker federal regulations on PERC in dry-cleaning. The federal Clean Air Act allows states to use stronger standards if the EPA approves them. Now that the agency has done that, the EPA will be able to enforce California’s stronger standards.

What you can do:
-Look for safer alternatives to dry-cleaning in your area: One of the safest is wet cleaning. To locate wet cleaners and CO2 cleaners, check the Pollution Control Center site at Occidental College and the National Clearing House for Professional Wet Cleaners.

Some non-PERC dry-cleaners use "hydrocarbon" treatments, but many of these are also toxic. For more information on the health and safety of dry-cleaning alternatives, see this fact sheet from the California Air Resources Board (PDF).

Consider handwashing your fine clothing in cold water and gentle detergent. Some manufacturers put the "Dry Clean Only" label on products that can be safely handwashed.

When shopping for clothes, check the washing instructions and avoid Dry Clean Only items.

Although you can hang dry-cleaned clothes outside to let them release PERC before bringing them into your home, this option does not help keep PERC out of our environment, nor does it protect dry-cleaning workers.

last revised 8/11/2011

Share | |
Find NRDC on