Quantcast

What Is ‘Green’ Dry Cleaning? A Toxics Expert Explains

seb_ra / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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.

Safer Alternatives

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A metal fence marked with the U.S. Border Patrol sign prevents people to get close to the barbed/concertina wire covering the U.S./Mexico border fence, in Nogales, Arizona, on Feb. 9. ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP / Getty Images

President Donald Trump issued the first veto of his presidency Friday, overturning Congress' vote to block his national emergency declaration to fund a border wall that environmental advocates say would put 93 endangered species at risk. However, the president's decision came the same day as an in-depth report from UPI revealing how razor wire placed at the border in the last four months already threatens wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Guillermo Murcia / Moment / Getty Images

By Ansley Hill

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that your body needs for many vital processes, including building and maintaining strong bones.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
D'Bone Collector Museum head Darrell Blatchley shows plastic found inside the stomach of a Cuvier's beaked whale in the Philippines this weekend. - / AFP / Getty Images

Yet another whale has died after ingesting plastic bags. A young male Cuvier's beaked whale was found washed up in Mabini, Compostela Valley in the Philippines Friday, CNN reported. When scientists from the D' Bone Collector Museum in Davao investigated the dead whale, they found it had died of "dehydration and starvation" after swallowing plastic bags―40 kilograms (approximately 88 pounds) worth of them!

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jeff Turrentine

"Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it." This is something that everybody has to learn at some point. Lately, the lesson has hit home for a group of American automakers.

Read More Show Less
Art direction: Georgie Johnson. Illustrations: Freya Morgan

By Joe Sandler Clarke

"Don't expect us to continue buying European products," Malaysia's former plantations minister Mah Siew Keong told reporters in January last year. His comments came just after he had accused the EU of "practising a form of crop apartheid."

A few months later Luhut Pandjaitan, an Indonesian government minister close to President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, warned his country would retaliate if it was "cornered" by the EU.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Torres and his parents walk along the Rio Grande. Luis Torres / Earthjustice

By Luis Torres

For some people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump's attempt to declare a national emergency and extend the border wall is worse than a wasteful, unconstitutional stunt. It's an attack on their way of life that threatens to desecrate their loved ones' graves.

Read More Show Less
Flooding at the Platte River south of Fremont, Nebraska. Gov. Pete Ricketts

Flooding caused by last week's bomb cyclone storm has broken records in 17 places across the state of Nebraska, CNN reported Sunday. Around nine million people in 14 states along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers were under a flood watch, CNN meteorologist Karen Maginnis said.

Read More Show Less
A car destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique. ADRIEN BARBIER / AFP / Getty Images

At least 150 people have died in a cyclone that devastated parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi over the weekend, The Associated Press reported Sunday. Cyclone Idai has affected more than 1.5 million people since it hit Mozambique's port city of Beira late Thursday, then traveled west to Zimbabwe and Malawi. Hundreds are still missing and tens of thousands are without access to roads or telephones.

"I think this is the biggest natural disaster Mozambique has ever faced. Everything is destroyed. Our priority now is to save human lives," Mozambique's Environment Minister Celso Correia said, as AFP reported.

Read More Show Less