How Perc Threatens the Environment
Dry cleaning is neither dry nor clean, since it uses a liquid solvent that negatively impacts the environment. 85% of dry cleaners use a solvent called perc, chemical name perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene. Perc is present in most people’s blood and breast milk due to its persistence in the environment. Dry cleaning workers and residents near dry cleaners have the highest concentrations.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report states that perc likely causes cancer and organ dysfunction. It conclusively causes chronic issues such as headaches, dizziness, and loss of balance. With such a long list of toxic effects, consumers should know the many ways perc spreads and how the dry cleaning industry can eliminate it.
Perc is in the Air
70% of used perc ultimately contaminates air and groundwater. Dry cleaning machines have systems for recovering the rest, but at a significant energy cost. Perc can spend 96 days in the air before degrading. “Fugitive vapors” that escape dry cleaning machines through the solvent recovery process or leaks most frequently expose workers and surrounding air to vaporized perc.
You can smell perc at 30,000 micrograms per cubic meter, well over the 34 microgram average found in apartments above dry cleaners. That average causes cancer in five of one million people exposed. Perc residue often permeates wool, cotton, and polyester – meaning that clothes that come back smelling sweet may spread perc throughout your home’s indoor air. Inhaling perc from clothes poses a greater risk than wearing them, since perc spreads more effectively through inhalation than absorption.
Perc is in the Water
Workers may encounter perc in its liquid form upon handling clothes, machines, and hazardous waste from spent solvent. Even a single drop can leak through concrete foundations into soil and groundwater. Perc is denser than water, concentrating at the bottoms of reservoirs and flowing or evaporating outward.
The EPA report states that perc has made its way into drinking water through contaminated groundwater sources. Pregnant residents exposed through drinking water have provided inconclusive evidence that perc may contribute to birth defects. Ultimately, perc improperly spilled or dumped into soil eventually makes it way up into the air or down into groundwater -and into most people’s bloodstreams.
Guidelines and Alternatives for Greener Cleaning
With all the environmental risks of perc apparent, there’s some good news. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines on perc set maximum limits on permissible exposure levels in the workplace. OSHA also requires machines and work practices adhering to EPA regulations on emissions.
Some places have even taken action to remove the toxic chemical outright. In 2007, California became the first state to phase out perc by 2023. In 2018, Minneapolis, Minnesota became the first major U.S. city to ban perc. The public isn’t passively accepting the risks, even as finding and implementing greener alternatives takes considerable time and money.
When dry cleaners claim to be “green”, you should ask if they offer wet cleaning. This computerized process uses water and biodegradable detergents to clean otherwise “dry clean only” clothes, avoiding the hazards above. Silicone-based solvents may also carry a risk of cancer, so wet cleaning presents a definitively “green” alternative where they might not. Both wet and clean, wet cleaning is a trustworthy improvement in dry cleaning technology.