Your Cleaner Could Be Greener


Mori Mickelson was breast-feeding her 11-month old son in the bedroom of her New York apartment in August 1997 when she began to get a headache. Feeling dizzy and like she was losing consciousness, she smelled a familiar chemical odor coming from the dry cleaner located in her building. The smell was perc, or perchloroethylene, a toxic organochlorine solvent used by most dry cleaners. Mori’s husband called the fire department, and the family and other residents immediately evacuated until an accidental spill could be cleaned up. After two weeks the smell and headache had disappeared, but Mori still noticed burning in her lungs. Originally developed as a degreaser for metals, perc has been classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. An October 1995 study by Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports, found that perc levels in apartments above New York City dry cleaners pose "clear hazards to the residents’ health."

But it’s not just a New York City problem. Greenpeace reports that an estimated million-plus people in the United States are at a risk from elevated levels of perc in their homes. Scientists have linked perc to nervous system, kidney, liver, and reproductive disorders in lab animals, and higher risk of cancer among dry-cleaning workers.

Even bringing dry-cleaned clothes home is risky. In the 1980’s, EPA studies found that people who reported visiting a dry-cleaning shop showed twice as much perc in their breath, on average, as other people. The effective half-life (the time required to eliminate half the quantity) of perc in the breath is about 21 hours. EPA also found that levels of perc remained in a home for as long as one week after newly dry-cleaned clothes were placed in a closet. And Consumer’s Union, in a March 1996 report, found that people who wear freshly dry-cleaned clothes, like a jacket and shirt, every week over a 40-year period could inhale enough perc "to measurably increase their risk of cancer" by as much as 150 times what is considered "negligible risk."

Dry-cleaning workers are affected most. Eric Frumin, health and safety director of UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), cites a 1994 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study that found the risk of esophageal cancer for dry-cleaning workers to be three to seven times higher than for the population at large. UNITE is pressing both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the EPA to take a stricter position regarding perc dangers and is calling on government officials to help dry cleaners phase out the use of perc. In the book Toxic Deception, Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle document EPA’s "paralysis on this long-recognized hazard," nothing that EPA officials, well aware of the evidence, worried "that action to curb perc...could have a devastating effect on the dry-cleaning industry." In fact, according to Toxic Deception, the EPA has delayed making public its own risk assessment of perc for several years because of industry pressure.

Dry cleaners throw all clothing — regardless of fabric or construction — into a machine containing gallons of perc, which removes fat, grease, and oil without shrinking fabric or causing dyes to bleed. The EPA estimates that about one-fifth 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. Newer machinery keeps clothing in a single machine, which agitates in the perc bath, spins out excess solvent, and tumbles dry. The dirt is dumped as hazardous waste, and the perc vapor is supposed to be captured and recycled. But cleaners using these machines still release perc fumes into the air, according to Consumers Union. Either their equipment or work practices are faulty, or training is inadequate. Until the mid-1980’s, it wasn’t illegal under federal law for dry cleaners to pour spent perc down the drain. As a result, perc has soaked into soil through sewer system leaks and is now a major contaminant in more than one-quarter of U.S. groundwater supplies.

Despite what labels say, dry cleaning is not the only answer. Some cleaners are phasing in an alternative process called professional wet cleaning, which has been around for more than 50 years and involves customized soap and water treatment. Depending on fabric and construction, clothing is either machine-washed in water with special computerized machines, steam-cleaned, or hand-washed; then it is machine-or air dried, pressed, and finished. Wet cleaning can be used on almost any garment, and, on average, costs about the same as dry cleaning, and a 1993 EPA analysis revealed it to be just as effective.

There are currently nearly 200 wet-cleaning operations across the country, including dry cleaners who have added wet cleaning as an extra service. The nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), which created a successful demonstration project, the Greener Cleaner, in Chicago in 1995, wants to see "Professional Clean" or " Hand Wash" labels sewed into clothing, instead of "Dry Clean Only". In early 1997, Consumer Reports found that professional wet cleaning and machine and hand washing often work well, can save money, and avoid exposure to health hazards. Another less toxic alternative is carbon dioxide (CO2), an inexhaustible resource that is liquefied in a high-pressure washing machine. After washing, the CO2 returns to a gaseous state, and dirt is the only thing left to be disposed of. This system is expected to become commercially available in 1998.

So what can you do? Start by buying washable clothing and reporting perc hazards. You can also:

* Urge the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention to develop a timeline for phasing out perc use. Lynn Goldman, assistant administrator, EPA, 401 M St. SW, Suite 7101, Washington, DC 20460.

* Encourage manufacturers to switch to "Professional Clean" or " Hand Wash" labels.

* Find a green cleaner in your area by checking Greenpeace’s online listing at,. If there are none near you, have clothes dry cleaned only when they are dirty. Frequent a cleaner that has a drop-off site or is located away from residential areas, and that uses modern machinery. If your clothes smell of perc, take them back to be dried better.

Kristin Ebbert, The Green Guide