Minneapolis, Minnesota recently became the first major U.S. city to forbid the use of toxic dry cleaning chemicals. What was behind their decision? Are there any safe dry cleaners to use? What better alternatives to dry cleaning exist?
Mom Detective gets to the bottom of it!
What dry cleaning chemicals did Minneapolis ban?
The primary chemical banned is perchloroethylene, or “perc.” Both the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences classifies perc as a “likely human carcinogen.” It’s a solvent that can cut through grease, which is why it’s used by about 85% of U.S. dry cleaners. It’s also a pervasive pollutant that is found in the air, in drinking water and in soil, WebMD reports, as well as in most people’s blood and in breast milk.
What danger does perc pose?
EPA says that perc can damage the brain and nervous system, as well as cause cancer. Additional consequences of exposure to perc include dizziness, drowsiness and loss of coordination; mild loss of memory, visual perception, and reaction time after several years of exposure; and redness and blistering of the skin after prolonged contact.
Do the chemicals threaten the health of people who work at the dry cleaners?
Absolutely. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says,
“As a volatile organic solvent, perc may pose serious health hazards if exposure is not properly controlled. Dry cleaning workers who routinely breathe excessive amounts of the solvent vapor or spill perc on their skin are at risk of developing health problems.”
Workers may also be exposed when handling clothes that have been treated with perc; when cleaning lint and button traps; cleaning machines; changing the solvent filters on the machines; and handling and storing dry cleaning waste, which is considered to be hazardous. “Fugitive” emissions, those not captured by vapor recovery or from simple leaks in machines, hoses, valves, and ducts, can also expose workers to high levels of perc.
Aren’t the chemicals mostly gone or evaporated by the time we bring our dry cleaning home?
Not exactly. Scientists at Georgetown University have found high levels of residual perc on dry cleaned wool, cotton and polyester. They also found that, by about a week after you’ve brought dry cleaned clothes home, the levels of perc on the clothing have decreased by about half. That means that the chemical has vaporized into the indoor air in your home.
Are there any safe or healthy dry cleaning options?
Environmental Working Group reports that “there are very few truly “green” dry cleaning technologies. Some companies advertise themselves as “organic” dry cleaners, but there are no standards or rules that determine what an organic dry cleaner actually is. Instead, ask specifically if they use either liquid carbon dioxide or “wet cleaning,” which uses biodegradable detergents and water to get the job done.
What other alternatives are there to dry cleaning?
Before you buy new clothes, check the tag on the inside seam that provides laundry directions. If it says, “Dry clean only,” leave it on the rack or risk cleaning it yourself. Wash cotton, linen, polyester, nylon and most synthetic fabrics at home, either in your washing machine or by hand. You can wash most sweaters by hand by soaking them in cool water with some detergent; look for detergents specially formulated for wool. Rinse well, wring gently, then lay flat on a clean towel to dry.
If you use dry cleaners because they’re handy and save time, try a laundry service instead. Many services will pick up as well as deliver clean and folded laundry and some use eco-friendly detergents as well.
What should you do with existing clothing that needs dry cleaning? Wear it less often, and get it cleaned less often! Jackets worn over blouses or dresses don’t need to be cleaned every time they’re worn.
NOTE: Some apartment buildings also contains a dry cleaners. Make sure the cleaner is complying with EPA requirements designed to protect your health. All perc dry cleaning machines installed in residential buildings before December 21, 2005, must stop operation by December 21, 2010. Owners of residential buildings with perc dry cleaning machines must switch to an alternative solvent or move the machine to a nonresidential building. Any new dry cleaning machine must install equipment to aggressively control perc emissions, and conduct weekly inspections to detect and repair leaks. They must also eventually eliminate per use. Find all the requirements here.