Environmentally Healthy Dry Cleaning

Cleaning Up the Dry Cleaning Business

  • Heidi Ridgley
  • Aug 01, 2003
WALK INTO the Rhode Island Cleaners in Washington, D.C.’s Tenleytown neighborhood and the first thing you’ll notice is the smell: There is none. “It shocks our customers,” says Joe Lothrop, who has owned the dry cleaning shop since 1991. “Then they ask, ‘Have you moved the cleaning off-site?’” The whiff they’re missing is perchloroethylene, or “perc,” a sweet-smelling solvent with a reputation for removing grease, blood and other tough stains from garments for nearly 50 years. But for the last decade or so, it’s also topped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of hazardous air pollutants—labeled as such under the Clean Air Act and regulated by the Clean Water Act and Superfund. The International Agency for Research on Cancer also lists it as a probable human carcinogen, and it is cited as the number one contaminant of groundwater in Southern California.

Such a rap sheet recently prompted Southern California air quality officials to enact a phaseout of perc over the next 20 years. Most of the nearly 40,000 dry cleaners nationwide are still using the chemical, but since California often leads the nation on environmental legislation, a nationwide ban may be on the horizon.

“The writing’s on the wall for dry cleaners,” says Henry Cole, president of the Maryland-based Center for Environmentally Advanced Technologies, a nonprofit organization that promotes technologies and economic incentives for businesses that eliminate toxic chemicals, prevent pollution and conserve natural resources.

Lothrop is one of a growing number of garment cleaners across the country who has decided to switch to a more environmentally benign cleaning process—before government regulations mandate it. New options include a variety of so-called “wet cleaning” or liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) processes. (Despite its name, dry cleaning is not dry—perc is a liquid chemical. The term dry cleaning really means that no water is used in the process.)

Professional cleaners who switched to wet cleaning use water in a specially controlled machine with carefully monitored washing and drying systems. For example, clothes dry slowly and in a humid environment rather than quickly as they do in a home dryer. Some cleaners use biodegradable soap. Others use a silicone-based solvent. With the CO2 process, the gas is pressurized into a liquid which, according to a recent article in Consumer Reports, turned out to have outperformed all other dry cleaning methods—even perc. Although CO2 is the major culprit behind global warming, the CO2 used by dry cleaners is captured as a waste product of other industries. “They’d just be putting it into the atmosphere anyway,” says Cole. “This way it’s at least collected and put to good use first.”

Lothrop, who switched to the silicone process, says he decided to make the change because using perc was a regulatory nightmare. “Now I no longer have to deal with inspections, hazardous waste or other regulatory garbage,” he says. “Buying new equipment was costly, but there’s no way I’d go back.” Besides, he adds, while showcasing a black, sequined evening gown, “you can do stuff with this that you can’t do with the other. Perc would’ve melted these beads.”

But he still believes perc is only a problem if you don’t handle it right. “Even then, four drops of perc deposited in your hand will evaporate in about 40 seconds,” he says. So if you’re someone who often drops your dirty laundry at a traditional dry cleaners, there’s really no worries, right?

Wrong, says Cole, “because as perc evaporates it goes right into your lungs and bloodstream.”

A 1997 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study estimated that about a third 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 machines. Newer equipment helps to alleviate this risk, but machinery in disrepair or a shop in noncompliance with regulations can still mean releases into the air and water. Until the mid-1980s it was legal to dump spent perc down the drain. It still contaminates an estimated 25 percent of our drinking water and trace amounts have been found in breast milk, cow’s milk and fish.

“The general consumer doesn’t realize that dry cleaners do pose a significant risk to people and the environment,” says Sam Atwood, a spokesperson for California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District. Long-term exposure to the chemical—a synthetic chlorinated hydrocarbon that belongs to the same class of compounds as DDT, PCBs and dioxins—can cause liver and kidney damage, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Workers repeatedly exposed to perc are most at risk, but living near a dry cleaner or bringing home clothes cleaned in the chemical are also dangers. EPA studies have found that levels of perc remained elevated in a home for as long as one week after hanging newly dry-cleaned clothes in a closet. “The worst are shoulder pads,” says Cole. “They absorb perc like mad.”

So what are the alternatives? Recommendations include buying clothes that don’t require dry cleaning, looking for a dry cleaner that doesn’t use perc or for shops that use the best management practices and most efficient machines. And if your clothes smell of perc when you pick them up, take them back to be dried more thoroughly.

You can also write to the Federal Trade Commission and ask them to update garment care labeling requirements to reflect new cleaning techniques, and to clothes manufacturers to encourage a voluntary switch to labels that read “professionally clean” or “hand wash.”

As for Lothrop, since making the switch he’s had a 50 percent increase in business, and he has eliminated the expensive costs associated with hazardous waste disposal. “It’s paying off in spades,” he says.

With more and more shops making the move to “greener” cleaning methods, in the end, maybe our bodies—along with our air, soil and water—will end up none the worse for wear.

Heidi Ridgley is an associate editor of this magazine.

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