I have a few articles of clothing that say “dry clean only” on the tag. I have heard that the dry cleaning process involves harmful chemicals. How I can clean these items without dry cleaning?
— Amanda, Frisco
Despite its name, dry cleaning is not totally dry, and it is the furthest thing from green cleaning. It involves the use of liquid chemicals and solvents to remove dirt and stains from our nicer clothing. Unfortunately many of the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process are considered toxic to both humans and the environment. Luckily for us, there is a healthier and cheaper option to get those fancy pants clean without bringing them to the dry cleaners.
Most dry cleaners rely on Perchloroethylene, or perc, for short. This colorless, sweet-smelling liquid has many appealing qualities for dry cleaners: it is not flammable, unlike the cleaning chemicals used primarily in the 1930s and ’40s. It is also possible to repurify perc of the dirt and residue it removes from the clothing, allowing it to be used again. Though these are improvements from the dry cleaning of yesterday, there are still some major concerns about the main ingredient for dry cleaning, perc.
According to the EPA, people exposed directly to perc, even for a short amount of time, will experience serious symptoms. Those include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, eye and mucous membrane irritation. Repeated exposure to high levels can also irritate the skin, eyes, nose and mouth, and can even cause liver damage and respiratory failure as seen in many laundry workers.
These health hazards associated with perc have been well documented. Back in 1995 , the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded the perc was “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on extensive research using animals and observation of those working in the laundry industry. These findings demonstrate that those who have to work with perc and those living near laundry facilities are most at risk. Even those who use dry cleaning occasionally can also be at risk. Be sure to smell your dry cleaned items when you pick them up. If they smell like the solvents, return the item so they can be properly rinsed.
Perc is also toxic to the environment and has been shown to pollute the air, soil and water, according to the EPA. Perc is an easily evaporable chemical which makes it difficult to keep contained. It can escape through air conditioners, vents and windows and has been shown to deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.
Once perc is used up and ready for disposal, it is considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of carefully. Some dry cleaners are safer than others and have their perc picked up for incineration. Due to accidental spills or dumping, perc ends up affecting our soil and water. Perc is toxic to all plant life. Even a small amount of perc can contaminate a large supply of drinking water, killing any aquatic life with it.
There are lots of ways to reduce or even remove our need for dry cleaning, thereby reducing perc’s detrimental effects on human health and our environment. Start by checking the tags on the clothing you buy, like checking the ingredients on products you buy at the grocery store. If you are choosing between two new sweaters and one doesn’t require dry cleaning, go for it!
According to the Huffington Post, even when the tag indicates that it is dry clean only that might not always be the case. In fact, in 2008 Proctor and Gamble found that 65 percent of clothing that was being dry cleaned did not actually need to be. Rich fabrics — such as leather, suede and velvet — are more challenging to clean at home. But wool, cashmere and silks can all be hand washed, in cold water, at home, with just a little detergent. Remember to rinse and lay the fabric flat to dry. Silk should be hung dry. If your clothing comes out wrinkled after hand washing in the sink, don’t worry! Ironing takes only a few minutes or you can spritz with a little fabric softener and let the item hang dry.
When it comes to dry cleaning, less is better. By limiting the amount of clothing that goes to the dry cleaner, you can save money and save the environment. Nothing is better than that! With a little time and effort we can make a difference in reducing air, water and soil pollution.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.