What Is ‘Green’ Dry Cleaning? A Toxics Expert Explains
By Joy Onasch
The winter holidays are a busy time for many businesses, including retail stores, grocers, liquor stores—and dry cleaners. People pull out special-occasion clothes made of silk, satin or other fabrics that don't launder well in soap and water. Then there are all those specialty items, from stained tablecloths to ugly holiday sweaters.
Few consumers know much about what happens to their goods once they hand them across the dry cleaner's counter. In fact, dry cleaning isn't dry at all. Most facilities soak items in a chemical called perchloroethylene or perc for short.
Exposure to perc is associated with a variety of adverse human health effects. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a unit of the World Health Organization, has designated perc as a probable human carcinogen. The most direct risk is to dry-cleaning workers, who may inhale perc vapors or spill it on their skin while handling clothes or cleaning equipment.
At the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, we work with small businesses and industries to find ways they can reduce the use of toxic materials and find more benign substitutes. For more than a decade the Toxics Use Reduction Institute has worked with dry cleaners to help them move to a safer process called professional wet cleaning, which uses water and biodegradeable detergents. This is a clear trend nationwide: In a 2014 industry survey, 80 percent of respondents said they used professional wet cleaning for at least 20 percent of their plant's volume.
AB Cleaners Washing Drying youtu.be
Perc's Long History
Perc has been the standard dry cleaning solvent for more than 50 years because it is effective, easy to use and relatively inexpensive. But improper use, storage and disposal of perc have resulted in widespread soil and groundwater contamination at dry cleaning sites. Studies show that long-term exposure can harm the liver, kidneys, central nervous system and reproductive system and may harm unborn children.
According to a widely cited estimate from federal agencies, there are about 36,000 professional garment care facilities in the U.S., and about 85 percent of them use perc as their main cleaning solvent. Industry surveys in 2009 and 2012 indicate that that figure has fallen to between 50 and 70 percent.
EPA has identified perc as a high priority chemical. Under amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act adopted in 2016, the agency has a mandate to study the health and environmental effects of perc and other priority chemicals, and potentially take action to reduce risk from exposure to them. However, in June 2018, EPA announced it was adopting a new approach to chemical risk screening that could exclude consideration of many sources of exposure, including exposure to perc contamination in drinking water.
It could be a regrettable substitution for dry cleaners to switch to other solvents if those substances also pose potential or unknown health and environmental risks. Accordingly, in 2012 the Toxics Use Reduction Institute evaluated a half-dozen alternative solvents, along with professional wet cleaning.
Overall, we found that the alternative solvents exhibited less persistence in the environment, potential to accumulate in the human body or the environment, or toxicity to aquatic life than perc. Most also appeared to be safer overall to human health. However, toxicological data were lacking for some of them, so future analyses may find that they are less benign than currently thought.
Some of these alternatives are combustible, so using them would require cleaners to buy specialized equipment to protect against fires or explosions. On the other hand, professional wet cleaning is water-based and poses no such risks. It uses computer-controlled washers and dryers, along with biodegradable detergents and specialized finishing equipment, to process delicate garments that would otherwise be dry cleaned.
We suggest that dry cleaners who want a safer alternative to perc should consider the key environmental and human health criteria, and then think about financial and technical issues at their own facilities to find the best alternative for them. Anecdotal information in Massachusetts indicates that cleaners are switching to petroleum-based alternatives such as DF2000™ at a higher rate than wet cleaning, and to other solvent alternatives at about the same rate as wet cleaning. Some operators doubt that a wet cleaning process can clean as well as solvent cleaning, but the Toxics Use Reduction Institute is working to dispel that myth through case study analysis, grants, demonstrations and training events.
Making the Switch
When the Toxics Use Reduction Institute began working with dry cleaners on this issue in 2008, to our knowledge there were no dedicated wet cleaners operating in Massachusetts. Today the state has more than 20 dedicated wet cleaners. Other cleaners seeking options for moving away from perc can obtain data from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and other researchers to help them make informed decisions about equipment purchasing and staff training.
Logo for Massachusetts cleaners that have adopted professional wet cleaning. TURI / CC BY-ND
At the Toxics Use Reduction Institute we also work with many other sectors to help steer them away from harmful chemicals and towards safer alternatives. Examples include removing flame retardants from foam pit cubes at
gymnastics training facilities; helping companies develop cleaning products without harsh solvents and acids; and researching and reformulating alternatives to methylene chloride for paint stripping.
In each case, the goal is to identify safer alternatives and then find champions of change who are willing to make the switch and show their peers how to get good results without using harmful chemicals. This model has shown that industry and consumer choices can push change from the bottom up.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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