Dry Cleaning’s Dirty Past and Potentially Brighter Future

The future of dry cleaning has become a subject of major debate in recent decades. Most debates concern perchloroethylene (also known as perc or tetrachloroethylene), the solvent that 85% of dry cleaners use. Perc has several negative health effects, including probable links to cancer. It persistently spreads into most people’s bloodstreams through water, soil, and air. Now that consumers and companies know the environmental and health risks, alternatives are emerging.

To understand how and why dry cleaners should replace perc, we should first examine how we got here. Perc actually comes from a long line of toxic dry cleaning solvents, and alternatives must avoid repeating history if we want eco-friendly cleaning in the future.

A Brief History of Hazardous Dry Cleaning

Modern dry cleaning originated in the 1820s with Thomas Jennings in the United States and Jean Baptist Jolly in France. A famous anecdote states that someone (either Jolly or a maid) invented dry cleaning by accidentally spilling kerosene on a tablecloth, removing its stains. Kerosene was indeed one of many solvents tested in the nineteenth century, alongside turpentine, camphor oil, gasoline, petroleum, and benzene.

Following centuries would reveal these solvents’ environmental and health hazards, such as benzene’s cancer risk and petroleum solvents’ neurological effects. However, the public’s main concern in the nineteenth century was petroleum solvents’ flammability. The U.S. government forced dry cleaners out of big cities due to the risk of explosions.

Perc emerged as a chlorinated solution to petroleum’s flammability problem. Michael Faraday first synthesized perc in 1821, and Joseph Stoddard (famously the inventor of petroleum-based Stoddard solvent) expanded its use in the 1930s. Between a World War II petroleum shortage and perc’s reintroduction of dry cleaners into populated areas, it became the dominant dry cleaning solvent.

Perc Presents Undeniable Hazards

People have raised concerns about perc’s hazards since the 1970s. That’s because early “transfer machines” involved workers transferring clothing to dryers manually, exposing them to high volumes of perc. Once the long-term impact became apparent over decades, a 2008 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report called perc a “likely human carcinogen”. Perc also causes several short- and long-term issues in the brain, nerves, and organs.

The United States has since banned transfer machines in favor of “dry to dry” machines, which transfer clothing through a closed system. But leaks, spills, and “fugitive” vapors still expose workers and nearby residents. Replacing old machines may cost between $40,000 and $100,000, which many small businesses cannot afford.

Nevertheless, there has been progress in replacing perc. In 2007, California became the first state with a plan to phase out perc by 2023. In 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city to ban perc. Besides cost, however, the major obstacle toward replacing perc is a lack of awareness about the best alternatives.

Search for Safe Alternatives

Laundering can sometimes be a viable alternative to dry cleaning despite “dry clean only” labels. Cotton, polyester, linen, nylon and synthetic fabrics can be laundered, and wool can be hand-washed with special detergents. Since dry cleaning appeals to customers for its convenience and thorough cleaning, though, it’s important to examine alternatives for companies as well.

Alternative chemical solvents may lack perc’s persistence and severity, but the limited research into their effects already reveals new hazards. Although biodegradable, silicone-based GreenEarth may still pose a cancer risk. Still other solvents, such as petroleum-based DF-2000, receive the misleading label of “organic” simply because they contain carbon. Perc counts as organic under the same definition.

If you want to make sure local dry cleaners are truly “green”, you should ask if they offer wet cleaning. This process uses water and biodegradable detergents in computerized washers and dryers. Wet cleaning treats garments more gently than laundering and without any toxic chemicals. It also eliminates the energy-intensive solvent recovery process, making it the most effective alternative overall.

Dry cleaning has had a long history of technological advancements conflicting with solvents’ newfound hazards. Now that repurposing water for dry cleaning is possible, wet cleaning offers a path to a greener, cleaner future.