Why Dry Cleaning Is a Hazard to Public Health

Most “green” alternatives generally focus on replacing the primary dry cleaning solvent, and for good reason.

In recent decades, consumers have become increasingly aware that traditional dry cleaning has adverse health effects.

85% of dry cleaners use perchloroethylene , also known as perc or tetrachloroethylene. This solvent effectively removes stains, but one Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report has made its hazards apparent. Perc spreads through air, water, and soil and can be found in most people’s bloodstreams, resulting in significant health issues at high exposure. It’s important to know the risks and seek alternatives to dry cleaning.

Long-Term Health Effects

The EPA classifies perc as a “likely human carcinogen,” citing conclusive evidence of perc-exposed rodents developing tumors. Additionally, dry cleaning workers show increased rates of “bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.”

Workers are not the only ones at risk. An estimated 34 people in 1 million develop cancer after long-term exposure to 34 micrograms of perc per cubic meter. That’s the average level found in apartments above dry cleaning facilities. You can smell perc at 30,000 micrograms per cubic meter, meaning that sweet-smelling dry cleaned clothes contain residual perc . The smell leaves when perc spreads throughout your indoor air.

The EPA also reports “inconclusive” evidence of kidney and liver dysfunction and reproductive issues such as “menstrual disorders, altered sperm structure, and reduced fertility” after long-term perc exposure. However, conclusive long-term effects include chronic neurological issues apparent in the short term.

Short-Term Health Effects

The EPA’s report also classifies perc as a neurotoxin. Its short-term effects include headaches, dizziness, unconsciousness, loss of balance, and other cognitive issues that become chronic after long-term exposure. Breathing air or drinking water near dry cleaners can be all it takes to experience these symptoms.

Perc is even unsafe to touch in its liquid form. Direct contact has left some dry cleaning workers with blistered and reddened skin. Customers also occasionally report rashes when their clothes contain residue.

Most exposure to perc results from “fugitive vapors” escaping dry cleaning machines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines on perc acknowledge its risks and require machines to contain perc effectively. These guidelines have greatly improved safety -but now that better alternatives exist, it’s time to phase out perc entirely.

Protecting Yourself from Hazardous Dry Cleaning

If you live near dry cleaners, you can limit your exposure to perc by having the health department survey the area’s toxicity levels. If you have clothes dry cleaned, having them re-cleaned and airing them outside will help remove residual perc. But if there are alternatives to dry cleaning near you, pursuing them is your best option.

When approaching so-called “green” dry cleaners, it’s important to learn whether they offer wet cleaning. This alternative method replaces solvent with water, avoiding perc’s hazards.

Unlike laundering, wet cleaning is highly computerized. The gentle process can clean even the clothes labeled “dry clean only”. However, laundromats and home laundering often still work on such clothing despite the label. Wet cleaning simply offers greater efficiency and convenience, with all the same perks of avoiding perc.