It’s convenient to drop your clothes off at the cleaners to be dry cleaned, particularly if you’re on a busy schedule. In addition, some fabrics need to be dry cleaned to avoid damaging the fabric. Unfortunately, the dry cleaning industry is one that’s fraught with hazards, not only to its workers, but also to customers. Is it unhealthy to wear dry cleaned clothes?
Why Is Dry Cleaning Fabric Hazardous to Health?
Dry cleaning fabric is a big business with around 36,000 dry cleaning shops located in the United States alone. More than eighty percent of these dry cleaning establishments use a cleaning chemical known as perchloroethylene, more commonly known as perc. Not only is perchloroethylene released into the air during the dry cleaning process, small amounts of it may be present on dry cleaned clothes when they’re picked up from the cleaners. Dry cleaning fabric using perchloroethylene is preferred by dry cleaners because it readily removes stains without destroying delicate fabrics and is quite inexpensive since it can be reused over and over.
What Are the Effects of Perchloroethylene?
Exposure to moderate levels of perchloroethylene can cause lightheadedness, dizziness, eye irritation, nausea, headaches, and confusion. Long term exposure to perc can have even more serious consequences including liver and kidney damage. Perchloroethylene exposure has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in rodents and is believed to carry the same risk in humans. Some states have taken action against the threat of perchloroethylene, including California which has banned use of this solvent.
Is Perchloroethylene Present on Dry Cleaned Clothes?
The greatest risk of perchloroethylene would be to workers who work in a dry cleaning plant that uses this solvent, although living near a dry cleaning facility may also carry some risk, especially if the plant uses older equipment. Whether wearing dry cleaned clothing from a shop that cleans with perc is a risk is controversial. Some experts believe that dry cleaning fabric with perchloroethylene leaves residues that can be absorbed by the skin and could increase the risk of cancer with long term exposure. The amount of perchloroethylene remaining on dry cleaned clothes would vary depending upon the facility doing the dry cleaning.
Is Dry Cleaning Fabric Hazardous to Health?
It would probably take a lot of exposure to dry cleaned clothes to significantly increase cancer risk, but with so many other pollutants and chemical exposures that are difficult to avoid, why add more? The fact that rodent studies have shown an increased risk of cancer from perchloroethylene exposure should raise red flags.
What Are the Alternatives to Dry Cleaning Fabric?
Some cleaners offer a newer alternative known as wetcleaning that uses water as a solvent instead of perchloroethylene. Although this eliminates exposure to unhealthy solvents, it’s not clear what effect this cleaning method has on the environment. Some cleaners are already offering this service, so it may be worth asking. A smaller number of cleaners are using natural liquid silicone as their cleaning solvent of choice.
The other method is Carbom Dioxide (CO2) cleaning. In this process, clothes are placed in a specialized machine, which is emptied of air. The pressure in the chamber is raised by injecting gaseous CO2, and then liquid CO2 is pumped into the mix. Clothes are rotated in a cycle that lasts five to 15 minutes at room temperature. The liquid CO2 dissolves dirt, fats, and oils in the clothing. At the end of the cleaning cycle, the liquid CO2 is pumped back into the storage tank, to be reused again, if possible. The remaining CO2 is released in the air.
While CO2 is a main greenhouse gas, no new CO2 is generated with this technology, so it does not contribute to global warming, says Sinsheimer. Liquid CO2 companies recapture the CO2 that’s already a by-product of several manufacturing processes, and they then recycle it into the liquid solvent for cleaning clothes. The main drawback is that, while the CO2 itself is both cheap and abundant, the cost of a CO2 dry cleaning machine is very high—a new machine costs around $40,000. Few dry cleaners are adopting this technique for this reason.
However, in the long run, these machines will save money by eliminating the disposal and regulatory costs associated with perc. With both wet and liquid CO2 cleaning, your clothes are also professionally finished, so you get a wrinkle-free pressing and an attention to detail that likely surpasses what you can do at home.
The other solution is to stop buying clothes that require dry cleaning. With so many natural fabric choices available, this may be the safest option of all.
I think, better way is to choose clothes that doesn’t require dry cleaning and to wash them with Phosphate free, environmentally friendly detergent, especially if you cannot find such nature friendly cleaners locally.