Dry cleaning. It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s a popular way to save time and get cleaned and pressed clothes. If you dry clean, have you ever thought about dry cleaners and their cleaning process? How about the chemicals they use to clean clothes, or the plastic around each of your individual garments? Dry cleaning may be convenient, but it’s an environmental disaster.
This past February, Ali Eldin, the owner of dry cleaning businesses in Edmonton pleaded guilty ”to offences relating to the improper handling and storage of tetrachloroethylene, commonly known as perchloroethylene, or shortened to PERC – a widely used dry cleaning solvent which poses environmental risks and is toxic to humans. Through periodic inspections over 18 months, it was evident that Eldin’s shops did not use proper safeguards for using PERC, which created hazardous waste and put the dry cleaning staff at risk. (Source.)
According to Canada’s Environmental Defence Dry Cleaning Report, Removing the Stain: Getting Cancer-Causing Chemicals Out of Your Clothes, PERC ”is an organic, colourless, non-flammable liquid widely used for dry cleaning of fabrics. PERC acts as an effective solvent and stain remover for organic materials, making it one of the most popular chemicals used in dry cleaning in North America since the 1950s.”
The Report cites short-term PERC exposure symptoms as dizziness, headaches, nausea, skin, eye, and lung irritation. Long-term exposure has been linked to reproductive health issues, lung and breast cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia. If PERC spills on the ground, it finds its way into our drinking water.
PERC is a terrible choice for getting clothes clean! Yet somehow, the chemical is allowed in Canada – this federal government page on Dry Cleaning Regulations lists PERC ”on the List of Toxic Substances, Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. Exposure commonly happens through contaminated air or water, including groundwater.” Environment Canada developed the following regulations around PERC to reduce its release from dry cleaning facilities:
- requiring more efficient dry cleaning machines that recover more PERC from the dry cleaning process;
- preventing PERC spills; and
- managing the way residues and waste water containing PERC are collected and disposed of.
Unfortunately, Toronto is the only city in Canada that measures and tracks PERC usage and emissions. We require much more protection on the municipal, provincial, and federal levels to protect our health and the environment.
If you’ve been awakened to the perils of dry cleaning, here are some alternatives to dry cleaning and tips to avoid dry cleaning altogether.
Alternatives to PERC
Wet Cleaning: Instead of having your clothes dry cleaned, ask for wet cleaning, or seek out a specific wet cleaner. There are lots of them popping up – wet cleaning is also known as organic, enviro- or green-cleaning. It is by far the most efficient, non-toxic, non-polluting and least expensive of all PERC alternatives. Wet cleaning uses water and biodegradable detergent in computer-controlled washers and dryers, and specialized finishing equipment for delicates. It also costs less and uses the least amount of energy. Excellent choice!
Carbon Dioxide Cleaning: Another eco-friendly method, low in toxicity but far more expensive than wet cleaning is carbon dioxide cleaning. This method uses non-flammable, non-toxic liquid CO2 as the cleaning agent. According to an assessment by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute of the University of Massachusetts, “[t]he CO2 used in the process is derived from industrial processes as a by-product; therefore the use of the gas itself in the cleaning process does not actively contribute to global warming.”
Others: Hydrocarbon and silicone cleaning use toxic, polluting, expensive solvents that aren’t really alternatives at all. Environmental Defense says that hydrocarbon cleaning contributes to air pollution, and silicon-based cleaning uses a flammable chemical called siloxane which potentially threatens aquatic ecosystems.
As you can see, the best alternative to toxic, polluting clothes-cleaning is also the least expensive. More wet cleaners, please!
Dry Cleaning Solvents and Textiles
Be aware of what you wear and what you dry clean. According to an article on the Environmental Working Group website, a study by scientists at Georgetown University found that PERC hangs onto different types of textiles. Silk did not appear to retain any of the chemical, but high levels of residual PERC was found on dry-cleaned wool, cotton, and polyester (very common ingredients in your clothes). The study found that further dry cleaning cycles intensified the PERC concentrations in the said textiles.
The study also offered evidence of PERC emitting from wool after it’s dry cleaned. Even if inside of a plastic bag, the PERC concentrations on wool depleted by half in a week. Conclusion? PERC vaporizes from clothing and into your home/car/office – and you breathe it in.
The lesson to take away here is to simply buy clothing that you don’t have to dry clean and can safely wash yourself (suits and sports jackets excepted). Read your washing labels, follow the instructions, Bob’s your uncle.
Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags
Mary Marlowe Leverette is a Laundry Expert. She sees the thin, filmy, plastic bags that protect your newly-cleaned clothes as a long-term hazard for your clothes (not to mention a suffocation hazard if you have children). Ms. Leverette advises to ditch the plastic around your dry cleaned garments.
“Leaving freshly cleaned laundry in the flimsy plastic bag can cause yellowing, staining and weakening of fibers,” she says. “The yellowing and other changes in color is caused by BHT (butylated hydroxyl tolune), an anti-oxidant used in the manufacturing of the plastic bag. When BHT comes in contact with any moisture and impurities in the air it forms a yellow pigment that transfers to the fabric.”
Though technically dry, freshly dry-cleaned clothes are pressed with steam and then bagged – enter the moisture and the pigmentation and kiss goodbye your favourite white shirt.
A piece of advice: if you get your clothes cleaned professionally, take them out of the bag and hang outside to air out when you get them home. Even better: store your clothes in cloth garment bags (unbleached cotton would be best) instead of plastic ones that leach chemicals – the cloth bags breathe and this reduces moisture and the possibility of mold.
If you’re still dry cleaning, try wet cleaning. If you’re not wet cleaning, maybe you should be hand-washing. I’ll fill you in on that next post as the laundry series continues.