JH: Of the 35,000 dry cleaning business in the U.S., 85% still use the toxic solvent perchloroethylene (perc) known to cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and which has been linked to reproductive problems, including miscarriage and infertility in men, as well as disorders of the central nervous system. If these health risks aren't enough, the International Agency for Research in Cancer has labeled perc a probable human carcinogen, as has the EPA in a recent Cleaner Technology Substitutes Assessment. Due to this extensive laundry-list of health concerns, and many other environmental concerns such as air and water pollution, dry-cleaning consumers can make a significant contribution by choosing healthier, greener alternatives to perc.
The best alternative to dry-cleaning is the method of professional cleaning known as "wet cleaning" which was introduced in the mid 90's. Wet cleaning is a system using water and non-toxic, biodegradable detergents to clean sensitive fabrics such as wool, silk, linen or rayon. Wet cleaning systems use computer-controlled washers and dryers, and occasionally hand-washing, to wash and dry garments before "finishing" with ironing or steam pressing. Wet cleaning, while resulting in no toxic air or water pollution, and having no adverse health affects, has also been recognized by the EPA as a viable financial alternative for dry cleaning businesses. In regard to performance, a study done by the Center for Neighborhood Technology concluded that 90% of customers rated wet cleaning as "good or excellent." However, in a 2003 article on dry cleaning alternatives, Consumer Reports was less impressed with wet cleaning methods that "left the lambswool jacket severely pilled" and shrank a linen blend skirt "from a size 14 to about a size 10. "
In addition to wet cleaning, several other perc alternatives are currently available nationwide. Among these, liquid carbon dioxide (CO2), also used for decaffeinating coffee, provides one good alternative to Perc with no reported adverse health risks. In this cleaning technology, developed under an EPA contract in 1994, CO2 is captured from existing industrial and agricultural emissions, and as a result, will not contribute to global warming. In fact, Hangers Cleaners, a national chain specializing in CO2 cleaning, won a National Environmental Award in 2002 from the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable. Unfortunately, unlike wet cleaning, the detergents used in CO2 cleaning do contain some volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and CO2 cleaning systems costs are almost double that of wet cleaning systems making them a less viable financial alternative for small businesses. Regarding performance, Consumer Reports in the above article listed CO2 cleaners as offering the best results in tests for shrinkage, discoloration, and preservation of texture even in a comparison with Perc results.
Other dry cleaning alternatives, including hydrocarbon solvents and siloxane, appeal significantly to dry cleaners as similar in process and cost to perc. These solvents are labeled as greener options because they are recognized as less toxic than perc, however, both the EPA and the Coalition for Clean Air have determined that these solvents can't be labeled safe for health or the environment until considerably more testing is done. Hydrocarbon solvents, such as DF2000 and comexsol, may be toxic or contain VOCs, and the EPA has noted concern over the high flammability of these petroleum-based chemicals. Siloxane solvents such as GreenEarth, while not chlorinated themselves, are currently manufactured using chlorine, and may release dioxin emissions. Again, as with hydrocarbon solvents, siloxane is extremely flammable. Also, the EPA notes that siloxane may be a carcinogen.
In making a choice on dry cleaning alternatives, it is important not to base decisions entirely on labels such as "green cleaning" or "green technology". These terms can mean a variety of things, and while "green cleaning" is most often a term which refers to a 100% wet cleaning method, some cleaners may be using these labels to indicate any non-Perc system, including the riskier siloxane and hydrocarbon alternatives, and in some instances cleaners might label themselves "greener" or "earth friendly" even if perc is still used in the process. Be sure to ask your cleaner what specific methods and chemicals they use before making your decision. Also, keep in mind the specific needs of your garments: even though wet cleaning methods are definitely the safest and most environmentally friendly, in the case of an expensive tailored wool jacket or a brightly colored rayon blouse, CO2 cleaning might be the best choice, while silks will likely do perfectly well with wet methods.
- For the EPA's list of wet cleaners and CO2 cleaners nationwide see http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/gcrg/cleanguide.pdf
- For locations of Hangers Cleaners: http://www.hangersdrycleaners.com/index.html
- For information on GreenEarth Siloxane cleaners: http://www.greenearthcleaning.com
- An overview on the risks of Perc is available from Greenpeace at http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/multimedia/download/1/544231/0/424
- Consumer Reports: Dry-cleaning Alternatives http://www.consumerreports.org/main/detailv2.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=299609&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=162695
This column has been reprinted courtesy of The Green Guide. It was first published in October 2004.