Dry Cleaning = Toxic?
First of all, what in the heck is dry cleaning?
The secret of how our clothes get processed at the dry cleaners is something few of us care to unravel. After all, the point is for our clothes to look clean and crisp and that we don’t have to do the work required to get them that way. We’ve come to rely on having professionally laundered clothing hanging in our closet, neatly pressed and ready to grab off the hanger. Besides, it’s relatively cheap for such a convenient service.
The problem is that most of us don’t have a clue about what’s involved in the process of dry cleaning. The first irony here is that the process isn’t dry. The second is that the process doesn’t leave your clothes clean – it leaves them polluted with chemicals. “Dry cleaning” is actually a wet process wherein stain-removing agents are added to a machine that looks like a washing machine. It is called “dry” cleaning because the cleaning agents aren’t water soluble.
Perchloroethylene (perc), a solvent and volatile organic compound (VOC), is the strong-smelling cleaning agent that’s most commonly used, and it dries quickly. It has the appearance of water but has a consistency similar to gasoline. Perc soaks into your clothing, which then goes through a washing process to remove what we think of as soil.
But here’s the kicker: The cleaning process that removes the dirt does not remove the dry cleaning solution. Your garments are still soiled – not with mustard, coffee or sweat – but with toxic chemicals.
If, as you read this, you are wearing clothes that have been dry cleaned, you are being exposed to perchloroethylene beacuse it has been absorbed by the fabric and does not wash out. The health effects of perc, especially when used over prolonged periods of time, are frightening. Long-term exposure can cause kidney and liver damage and has been proven in laboratories to cause cancer in animals. Even short-term exposure has its risks, including dizziness, a rapid heart rate, headaches and skin irritation.
A central nervous system depressant, perc can enter the body through the lungs and skin. In fact, exposure to perc can be measured via a breathalyzer test, much like alcohol. Stored in the fat, perc is released slowly into the bloodstream and can be detected for weeks after heavy exposure. One study on residential air quality in New Jersey examined the effect of bringing dry-cleaned clothes into the home. The study found that elevated levels of perc persisted for up to 48 hours. During that time, inhalation levels of perc increased two to six times for people in the exposed settings.
Because of this danger, California and a few other U.S states have ordered that perc be phased out by the year 2023. Considering that so many other states haven’t taken any action to ban perc, California and states like it should be applauded. Yet their citizens are still looking at another decade or so of poisoning. It’s hard to believe that even when a chemical is proven dangerous, our government considers economic concerns first and public health hazards second.
Give it Air
Does this mean you should resign yourself to looking wrinkled, stained and frumpy? No, the “sloven professor” look isn’t necessary. There are several things you can do to limit your exposure to perc or completely eliminate it from your life once and for all while still keeping your clothes and linens looking fresh.
First, you can reduce your risk by thoroughly airing out any dry-cleaned clothing or other household fabrics. You can do this by hanging it outside or placing it in the garage or a well-ventilated room with a way to sweep the chemicals outside.
Then give it the sniff test – if it still smells like the cleaners, air it out for another day or two.
You can also wear an undershirt or tank top underneath jackets or sweaters to reduce skin contact with perc-treated clothing. This yields the bonus of allowing you to wear the clothing additional times between cleaning. Thus, if your suit isn’t dirty or smelly, don’t send it to the cleaners. Just air it out and iron it because the cleaning agent is still there.
Use Greener Cleaners!
Several environmentally responsible and less toxic alternatives to perc have recently emerged, including paraffin-based agents, propylene glycol ethers and liquid CO2 (carbon dioxide). And with states like California imposing increasingly stringent use restrictions on VOCs, it’s likely that more and more dry cleaners will begin to offer these sensible substitutes.
Start by looking online (using keywords like “eco-friendly dry cleaners”) for cleaners in your area who employ paraffin-based cleaning agents, such as DF 2000®, Pure Dry® and EcoSolv® or who use any of the propylene glycol ethers marketed as Rynex®, Impress®, or Solvair®. You can also look for cleaners who have introduced a new “wet-cleaning” technology. This process uses water along with biodegradable detergents to produce a solvent in a computer-controlled process that preserves fabric integrity through humidity-controlled drying.
And if you’re fortunate enough to have a cleaner in your area who uses liquid CO2, look no further, Liquid CO2 is effective, nontoxic, and easy on the environment, making it an excellent dry-cleaning choice.
Do it Yourself
Labels sometimes lie when it comes to instructions for care and cleaning. Clothing labeled “dry clean only” can often be laundered at home after it has been dry cleaned just one time. What’s more, many natural fabrics-even wool and silk- can be gently laundered at home without them ever having been dry cleaned. You can launder these kinds of fabrics with SmartKlean or a gentle eco-friendly detergent / soap on a delicate wash cycle with cold water and then line dry or use a low setting in your dryer.
For seriously delicate fabrics like silk or cashmere, hand wash them in cold water with mild soap and then air dry.
There’s always some risk of damage or shrinkage, but are you more concerned about damaging your clothes or your long-term health? Dry cleaning may be one everyday behavior for which we can do more than reduce our exposure to toxins. We may be able to rid ourselves of it entirely.
Source: The Healthy Home by Dr. Myron Wentz & Dave Wentz.
Entry filed under: Health Hazards, Natural Cleaning, Smart Laundry Tips. Tags: chemical dry cleaning, dry cleaning safe, dry cleaning safety, dry cleaning toxic, green dry cleaning, Toxic Dry Cleaning.