Your Cleaner Could Be Greener

Mori Mickelson was breast-feeding her 11-month-old son in the
bedroom of her New York apartment in August 1997 when she began to
get a headache. Feeling dizzy and like she was losing
consciousness, she smelled a familiar chemical odor coming from the
dry cleaner located in her building. The smell was perc, or
perchloroethylene, a toxic organochlorine solvent used by most dry
cleaners. Mori’s husband called the fire department, and the family
and other residents immediately evacuated until an accidental spill
could be cleaned up. After two weeks the smell and headache had
disappeared, but Mori still noticed burning in her lungs.

Originally developed as a degreaser for metals, perc has been
classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and as a probable human carcinogen by the
International Agency for Research on Cancer. An October 1995 study
by Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes
Consumer Reports, found that perc levels in apartments above New
York City dry cleaners pose ‘clear hazards to the residents’

But it’s not just a New York City problem. Greenpeace reports
that an estimated million-plus people in the United States are at
risk from elevated levels of perc in their homes. Scientists have
linked perc to nervous system, kidney, liver, and reproductive
disorders in lab animals, and higher risk of cancer among
dry-cleaning workers.

Even bringing dry-cleaned clothes home is risky. In the 1980s,
EPA studies found that people who reported visiting a dry-cleaning
shop showed twice as much perc in their breath, on average, as
other people. The effective half-life (the time required to
eliminate half the quantity) of perc in the breath is about 21
hours. EPA also found that levels of perc remained elevated in a
home for as long as one week after newly dry-cleaned clothes were
placed in a closet. And Consumers Union, in a March 1996 report,
found that people who wear freshly dry-cleaned clothes, like a
jacket and shirt, every week over a 40-year period could inhale
enough perc ‘to measurably increase their risk of cancer’?by as
much as 150 times what is considered ‘negligible risk.’

Dry-cleaning workers are affected most. Eric Frumin, health and
safety director of UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textile Employees), cites a 1994 National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study that found the risk of
esophageal cancer for dry-cleaning workers to be three to seven
times higher than for the population at large. UNITE is pressing
both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and
the EPA to take a stricter position regarding perc dangers and is
calling on government officials to help dry cleaners phase out the
use of perc. In the book Toxic Deception (Birch Lane Press, 1996)
Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle document EPA’s ‘paralysis on this
long-recognized hazard,’ noting that EPA officials, well aware of
the evidence, worried ‘that action to curb perc . could have a
devastating effect on the dry-cleaning industry.’ In fact,
according to Toxic Deception, the EPA has delayed making public its
own risk assessment of perc for several years because of industry

Dry cleaners throw all clothing ? regardless of fabric or
construction ? into a machine containing gallons of perc, which
removes fat, grease, and oil without shrinking fabric or causing
dyes to bleed. The EPA estimates that about one-fifth of all dry
cleaners still use a separate washer and dryer, which allows perc
to evaporate into the air when clothes are transferred between the
two. Newer machinery keeps clothing in a single machine, which
agitates in the perc bath, spins out excess solvent, and tumbles
dry. The dirt is dumped as hazardous waste, and the perc vapor is
supposed to be captured and recycled. But cleaners using these
machines still release perc fumes into the air, according to
Consumers Union. Either their equipment or their work practices are
faulty, or training is inadequate. Until the mid-1980s, it wasn’t
illegal under federal law for dry cleaners to pour spent perc down
the drain. As a result, perc has soaked into soil through sewer
system leaks and is now a major contaminant in more than
one-quarter of U.S. groundwater supplies.

Despite what labels say, dry cleaning is not the only answer.
Some cleaners are phasing in an alternative process called
professional wet cleaning, which has been around for more than 50
years and involves customized soap-and-water treatment. Depending
on fabric and construction, clothing is either machine-washed in
water with special computerized machines, steam-cleaned, or
hand-washed; then it is machine- or air-dried, pressed, and
finished. Wet cleaning can be used on almost any garment, and, on
average, costs about the same as dry cleaning, and a 1993 EPA
analysis revealed it to be just as effective.

There are currently nearly 200 wet-cleaning operations across
the country, including dry cleaners who have added wet cleaning as
an extra service. The nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology
(CNT), which created a successful demonstration project, the
Greener Cleaner, in Chicago in 1995, wants to see ‘Professional
Clean’ or ‘Hand Wash’ labels sewed into clothing, instead of ‘Dry
Clean Only.’ In early 1997, Consumer Reports found that
professional wet cleaning and machine- and hand-washing often work
well, can save money, and avoid exposure to health hazards. Another
less toxic alternative is carbon dioxide (CO2), an inexhaustible
resource that is liquefied in a high-pressure washing machine.
After washing, the CO2 returns to a gaseous state, and dirt is the
only thing left to be disposed of. This system is expected to
become commercially available in 1998.

So what can you do? Start by buying washable clothing and
reporting perc hazards. You can also:

  • Urge the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention to develop a
    timeline for phasing out perc use. Lynn Goldman, assistant
    administrator, EPA, 401 M St. SW, Suite 7101, Washington, DC
  • Ask the Federal Trade Commission to update garment care
    labeling requirements. Connie Vecellio, Bureau of Consumer
    Protection, FTC, 601 Pennsylvania Av. NW, Suite 4302-F, Washington,
    DC 20580.
  • Encourage manufacturers to switch to ‘Professional Clean’ or
    ‘Hand Wash’ labels.
  • Find a green cleaner in your area by checking Greenpeace’s
    online listing at, or call Dave DeRosa at
    312/563-6064. If there are none near you, have clothes dry cleaned
    only when they are dirty. Frequent a cleaner that has a drop-off
    site or is located away from residential areas, and that uses
    modern machinery. If your clothes smell of perc, take them back to
    be dried better.

From The Green Guide (Nov. 1, 1997),
Subscriptions (includes membership) $25/yr. (15 issues) from
Mothers and Others, 40 W. 20th St., New York, NY 1011-4211.

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