When Alden, my eldest, was born, we received a number of pieces of clothing labeled "dry-clean only." Gazing down on those tiny outfits, my first thought was how expensive it would be to dry-clean baby clothes. My second thought was, "There is no possible way that dry-cleaning chemicals can be good for babies."
Having worked in corporate America for years, I'm no stranger to dry cleaning. You can't beat it for convenience. But that convenience comes at a cost that isn't apparent in your laundry bill. The solvent that most dry cleaners rely on –- the source of that sweet, heady smell that hits you the second you enter the cleaners -- is a chemical known as perchloroethylene or PERC. It's the same solvent used in paint strippers and spot removers, and while it's great at lifting stains, it could leave quite a mark on your health.
Health Risks of PERC
PERC lingers in recently dry-cleaned clothing and slowly escape into household air (pdf). Studies have shown that chronic exposure to small amounts of PERC can lead to headaches, difficulties with color vision, and impaired motor skills. People who work with this chemical have a greater risk of developing certain cancers (pdf), and women working at dry-cleaning facilities have higher rates of menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions (pdf). In animals, PERC has been linked to kidney and liver cancer (pdf). Pretty scary stuff.
But even if you've never set foot in a dry cleaner, you can still be exposed to PERC. According to an industry survey, about 75 percent of dry cleaners in the United States have contaminated the surrounding soil and groundwater with PERC. (Before PERC disposal was regulated, it was common practice (pdf) to dump it down the drain or toss it out the back door.) The chemical is also a contaminant found at more than half (pdf) of our nation's Superfund hazardous waste sites.
Alternative Cleaning Methods
From my experience in the garment industry, I know that most clothing labeled "dry-clean only" can actually be gently hand-washed. I do this sometimes, but honestly, who's going to hand-wash a suit? Luckily for me, a new wet-cleaner (click to find one near you) has opened in my neighborhood, and they can clean just about anything that you might want to dry-clean.
Wet-cleaning machines basically do the hand-washing for you, but with the added precision of computerized controls. Wet-cleaners also use specialized drying and pressing equipment, so the end result is the same as the dry cleaners –- fresh, spotless, crease-free clothing for the same price as the dry cleaners.
While some PERC-free dry-cleaners might advertise themselves as green, it's still important to find out what they use instead. Some have switched to what they call "organic" solvents, which are actually petroleum-based chemicals. You might call them organic if you were taking a chemistry quiz, but these solvents aren't environmentally friendly. Others might use silicone-based solvents instead of PERC, but these chemicals have been linked to cancer (pdf) and are extremely persistent in the environment.
Carbon dioxide cleaning is usually a safer alternative, although not that common because the equipment is expensive. Also, some carbon dioxide cleaners add glycol ether (pdf), yet another toxic solvent, negating the environmental benefits of getting rid of PERC.
Phasing Out PERC
Despite its dangers, using PERC is still perfectly legal under federal law. The EPA is considering tightening regulations on the chemical, but as usual, the agency is under intense industry and political pressure to scale back its recommendations.
Some states are taking their own steps to phase out PERC and will be ahead of the curve in offering greener alternatives for consumers. California law requires all PERC machines in the state to be taken out of service by 2023. A drinking water scare in Illinois led to a proposed bill that would ban the use of PERC in dry cleaning completely by 2026. Meanwhile, Massachusetts and New Jersey are beginning to reduce PERC use by providing incentives for dry cleaners to convert to less harmful cleaning technologies.
Greener Laundering Tips
Unless you perspire very, very, heavily, sweaters and suits don't need to be washed frequently. They'll actually last longer if you don't clean them too often. Try spot cleaning and brushing off stains and spills (or in my case, spit-up) before laundering an entire garment.
Hand-wash your "dry-clean only" clothes. Many items, including silk and cashmere, can even be machine washed, provided you use a gentle detergent, a mesh bag, and the delicate cycle. The Laundress, a high-end eco-detergent company, has some very helpful washing tips (pdf) for different fabrics. They also carry a great baby detergent.
Check out www.nodryclean.com to find a wet-cleaner in your area. And for extra eco-points, bring your hangers back to the cleaners so they can be reused.
Image: Jeremy Brooks